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Iran Undergoing Democratic Changes - 2001-11-29


During the past few months, Iran has become a hub of diplomatic activity as foreign emissaries have sought cooperation in resolving the crisis in neighboring Afghanistan. There has been speculation that the Afghan crisis may bring Iran further out of its diplomatic isolation and could result in opening a dialogue with the United States.

For many outsiders, Iran brings to mind visions of turbaned, bearded Islamic fundamentalists, and women cloaked in black from head to toe. Think again, says Mahmood Sariolghalam. "Iran is a very cosmopolitan country unlike the image that it has, especially in the United States," he said.

Professor Sariolghalam of Tehran's National University says the reason for that image is lack of communication.

In many cases, Western perceptions of Iran stem from the early days of the Islamic revolution more than two-decades ago, when radical Islamic fundamentalists ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and installed a theocracy headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Internally, there were brutal purges and the new rulers implemented a strict interpretation of Islam. The Islamic Republic also cut ties with major Western nations and lashed out at the United States, which was often denounced in massive street demonstrations as the "Great Satan."

Professor Sariolghalam says much has changed since the revolution. "Iran is moving from an ideological status to a status where economic growth, education, civil society are becoming much more important than foreign policy adventurism," said Mahmood Sariolghalam. "There is an active parliament in this country. Iran is the second country in the Middle East, after Israel, that has an electoral process, although that electoral process needs a long evolutionary process of maturing."

Iranians have embraced free elections. Last June they handed a second landslide victory and another four-year term of office to President Mohammed Khatami, a moderate cleric who has promised continued political and social reform.

Economist and political analyst Ali Rasheedi says conditions have improved under President Khatami. "There has been a great change in terms of social freedoms of the people, as you see in this cafe a number of young boys and girls are sitting talking," he said. "Ten years ago we could not do this. And President Khatami has allowed people to express their views more openly. I could not have done this same interview 10 years ago."

But, says Mr. Rasheedi, there has been no real substantial change in terms of institutions or power structure.

Tehran lawyer and human-rights activist Shirin Ebbadi agrees there have been positive changes, including for Iran's women. She says, for example, more than 60 percent of university students in Iran are women. But Mrs. Ebbadi also argues that much more needs to done. She says women are discriminated against in divorce laws, in gaining custody of their children and in being awarded compensation in case of death or accidental injury - so called "blood money." She also says married women should not have to get their husband's permission to get a passport to travel. Mrs. Ebbadi says while Westerners tend to focus on headscarves women must wear, Iranian women consider gaining their civil rights a much more important issue.

What has developed is a struggle between reformers and conservative clerics and their supporters. The reformist parliament often passes laws only to have them quashed or delayed by other state bodies controlled by the hard-liners. Reformers have encouraged the establishment of private newspapers, but many have been quickly shut down by the judiciary.

Ali Nouri is a well-known reformist member of parliament. He says a balance must be struck between democratic reforms and religion. "There is some struggle between reformers and conservatives because democracy is rule of the majority," he said. "And some people in Iran have a lot of power, but not a majority, and some are the majority and do not have enough power."

But Dr. Nouri believes this kind struggle is good for Iran. He says it is part of the process that will adapt democracy to the needs of Iranian society and take into account the powerful role of religion.

Taher Hashemi is a conservative cleric. Though some clerics are portrayed as against anything Western, he says he sees no problem with combining religion, democracy, and some elements of Western culture.

Mr. Hashemi, who is also managing editor of the conservative "Entekhab" newspaper, says there is no contradiction between modernity and Islam. We are not against music or the Internet, he says and we are not against Western culture. But, says Mr. Hashemi, it is important that Iran maintain its own culture, combined with the positive aspects of Western culture.

One thing appears clear, while the majority of Iranians want change, they want it to come in a peaceful, orderly fashion.

Hamid Reza Jalaeipour is a reformist writer and journalist. He says a movement has been created that conforms with what Iranians of today want. "This is a civic movement, not a populist or revolutionary movement," he said. "This movement will go forward through legal means, in a peaceful way, through institutions, not through the street. This movement will go forward step-by-step."

Mr. Jalaeipour says Iran's educated middle class believes this is the way forward. They experienced the upheavals of revolution in 1979 - they know what that means, he says. Now they want evolution. But not everyone is so patient. Iran has a huge young population impatient for change and some times street celebrations like this one after a football match have turned into protest demonstrations to denounce the country's clerical establishment.

Some, like Hamid Jalaeipour are not too concerned by the demonstrations. They say it is natural for young people to be in a hurry. But others are worried about what, to them, is the impatience of Iran's young people with the slow pace of change.

But on this evening young couples holding hands and sipping tea at this cafe in Tehran's Mellat Park showed little interest in politics.

Twenty-three-year-old Bezhad says young people like to come to the park to listen to music, have tea and talk. He says it is better than staying at home and watching one's parents.

Bezhad, who is currently doing his military service, is a computer technician and says he hopes more jobs will be available in his field. His friend, Mehrmaz, wants to be a musician.

Neither is clamoring for radical change. Yes, they would like more freedom, and better job opportunities, but these young Iranians seem content with changes, a step at a time.