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British Exhibit at Tehran Museum Reflects Turning Point in Iranian Attitudes - 2004-03-04

After 25 years of isolation following the Islamic Revolution, there are signs that Iran is opening up to the outside world. Analysts say, even though the conservative religious hard-liners scored a victory in last month's parliamentary elections, Iran's growing exposure to foreign influences cannot be stopped.

Tehran may seem like an unlikely place for modern art, but its Contemporary Museum of Art recently opened an exhibition of works by 15 British sculptors and visual artists.

The British Council helped organize the exhibit, called Turning Points. It is the first exhibition of British art in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 all but shut out political and cultural exchanges with the West.

The exhibition features even such provocative art as Damien Hirst's Resurrection - a human skeleton suspended on glass, with its arms outstretched in a representation of Christ on the cross.

There is no doubt in the minds of organizers that Iran is ready for such a controversial show.

"The first question all British journalists ask about this exhibition is, "Is Iran ready for Damien Hirst and this exhibition?" Dr. Sami Azar and I have been working on this exhibition for a year, and I can assure you that no Iranian journalist has asked me that question," said Andrea Rose, who is with the British Council. .

To museum Director Ali Reza Sami Azar, the show is about pushing more than just artistic boundaries. He hopes the exhibition generates debate that transcends the art world.

"Unfortunately, over the last 20 years, art and artistic collaboration [have] suffered a lot from political tension. I think, now, it's our turn to do something to exert influence on politicians to pave the way for further appreciation of the people, [and] understanding of the people," he said. "I think, through art, people can get together, can understand each other, while through politics, misunderstandings are being developed."

Many observers say Iran is at a turning point. The past eight years have been marked by a struggle between hard-line Islamic conservatives, who hold the most senior posts in government, and liberals who want to reform government and society as a whole.

The conservative Guardian Council blocked hundreds of pro-reform candidates from running in Iran's parliamentary election last month to engineer a victory. And the Council, made up of 12 hard-line clerics and Islamic jurists, has shown little desire to cede its hold on power and little tolerance for criticism. Just prior to the election, two pro-reform newspapers were shut for criticizing the Guardian Council's decision to bar candidates. Opposition figures and student leaders have also been imprisoned for speaking out against the government.

Some reformers charge that several members of the Guardian Council want to implement a stricter form of Islam across Iran, along the lines of the Taleban rule in Afghanistan. But few think doing so would actually be possible.

"The rightists, particularly the traditional clergies, they are very much after the same thing. But several times they tried to do it. But they have failed. Because Iran is not Afghanistan," said Ibrahim Yasdi, the secretary-general of the pro-reform party, the Freedom Movement of Iran.

But Mr. Yasdi says Iran's intellectual tradition and its inclusion of women in public life is too strong for fundamentalism to take root. "They cannot turn the clock backwards. They want it, but they aren't able to do it," he said.

Amal Hamada, an assistant lecturer in political science at Cairo University, says that after 25 years of relative isolation, even Iran's conservatives realize the country must open up. She cites as an example former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, known now as a hard-liner, who first started the trend toward renewed links with the outside world.

"During his presidency, he was the first one who spoke of opening Iran to the outside world and drafting a new relationship with the outside world," she said. "Maybe the conservatives are more reluctant to do it, but they will do it in the end."

Analysts say by opening Iran to the outside world, hard-liners ease the pressure on them for much more radical changes. The analysts say the conservatives realize they cannot control the influence of the Internet, satellite television and Iranians themselves, who, when they go abroad, bring back with them new ideas that are taking root in Iran.