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Discontent among young people in Iran is forcing the pace of political change

By Guy Dinmore
The Financial Times
January 8, 2000

From the bright lights of an internet café in the smarter reaches of north Tehran to the working class suburbs of the depressed south, the young people of Iran deliver the same message to their clerical rulers.

Frustration is running high and change must come. The generation that has little or no memory of the 1979 Islamic revolution and the overthrow of the US-backed Shah sees itself at the forefront of a profound movement propelling Iran to a critical juncture.

Logging on to web sites around the world in his favourite internet café, Hossein - well educated and affluent enough to be able to spend the equivalent of $3 an hour on the net - says his friends are thirsting for political and social reform.

"Everyone wants to be free, to do what they want, to have a government that responds to the wishes of the people, a foreign policy that helps Iran and does not isolate it. If we want a democratic society, so many things must change," Hossein remarks.

His hopes, and those of many of his generation, are pinned on Mohammad Khatami, Iran's moderate president, who was elected in May 1997, in a sweeping and largely unexpected victory over the candidate of the conservative establishment. The next hurdle is parliamentary elections on February 18, when a loose coalition of reformist groups hopes to gain a majority.

There has been little tangible political reform since 1997, but young people feel more confident in pushing back the barriers of what was until recently considered culturally taboo under the regime's interpretation of Islamic principles.

Unmarried couples stroll in parks, visit restaurants and cinemas together, less afraid of harassment by vigilantes. Satellite dishes are still illegal but many homes have them on their balconies. The internet is flourishing, taxis and health clubs play western music.

The most visible achievement of Mr Khatami's government is the plethora of newspapers espousing reformist ideas and participating in unprecedented political and religious debate. As quickly as the courts, under the control of Islamic hardliners, close one title down, another emerges.

Queues form at kiosks to buy the latest editions, hungry for more alleged revelations about the killings in late 1998 of several dissident intellectuals. The "serial murders", as they are known, have been blamed on rogue agents within the intelligence ministry.

The most hotly-read book these days is The Hemlock of Reforms, the explosive defence statement made by Abdollah Nouri, a cleric and close adviser of the president who was jailed for five years in November by a hardline court. Mr Nouri was found guilty of religious and political dissent for daring to attack the unbridled powers of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who inherited the mantle of Supreme Leader after the death of Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989.

In the poverty-stricken suburbs of Islamshahr in south Tehran, the frustration is fuelled by economic problems. The rapidly-spreading streets are a haven for rural, jobless migrants seeking a way to survive. Abass, who is 15, says his father has just found a job after several years of unemployment. His family of four gets by on the equivalent of about $1 a day, but even this is being undermined by inflation.

Although the conservative establishment, which still has a parliamentary majority, pins the blame for Iran's economic woes on Mr Khatami, Abass and his young friends are enthusiastic about their president. At 15, he is even old enough to vote in next month's crucial elections. Abass has never even heard of Mr Nouri, since he cannot afford newspapers, but says he will vote for the president's people.

Politicians have little choice but to listen to young people, since 60 per cent of Iran's rapidly growing population is aged under 20. "What are the reasons that people are depressed, and there are so many problems with young people?" asked Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric and reformist close to Mr Khatami, in a recent address at Tehran University.

"We should revise our own policies, and investigate what made the system vulnerable. The youth made the revolution, went to war [against Iraq] and stood up against the US, Soviet Union and Arab sheikhs. What has happened to people born in the last 20 years? Why are we losing our young generation?" he demanded.

The conservative old guard blames "enemies of the revolution", a code word for the western powers and individuals such as Mr Nouri, for youthful discontent. The Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture, which is responsible to issuing newspaper licences, and is headed by a close aide to the president, is one of their favourite targets.

Few in Iran believe the February 18 elections will be completely free and fair. The powerful Council of Guardians, controlled by hardliners, and the Interior Ministry, have already blocked many would-be candidates from reformist and nationalist movements.

Yet Davoud Bavand, a political analyst, believes the process of change in Iran is inevitable. "The conservatives might stop it for a while or create an ad hoc crisis but the trend will continue," he says, "Everything has its own cycle. I don't believe in the permanence of the revolution. There is now a need for a new logic. It is a very critical moment."

Mr Bavand, who added his signature to an open letter published this week by about 200 academics and politicians calling for political reforms, says there are fears that Mr Khatami is no longer in control. He has suffered many setbacks - the killings in 1998, a harsh crackdown by security forces on student protests last July, and the jailing of several of his close supporters. But Mr Khatami has been prudent in pursuing reform, recognising that change must come gradually. "The system cannot take severe shocks," says Hussein in the internet café, "There is no desire for another revolution."

Nobody is sure what will happen if Mr Khatami's supporters are thwarted at the polls. The conservatives could manipulate the polls to ensure that the balance of power in the next parliament is held by independent provincial candidates, and the authoritative presence of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, Mr Khatami's predecessor as Iran's president.

Hussein has already made his decision. Like many talented young people, he is preparing to leave Iran to work in the west. Those left behind may find other ways to express their frustration. In a depressed township near Abass Islamshahr, residents took to the streets last week, burning tyres and seeking better economic conditions. Iran's young people want a response from their leaders; nobody yet knows what that response will be.