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Via TV and the net, Iran's youth plot social revolution

Via TV and the net, Iran's youth plot social revolution

Author: Tim Judah
Publication: The Observer, UK
Date: August 28, 2002

It is Friday prayers at Tehran University. A wizened, elderly mullah is preaching to thousands about the need for Muslim unity. Beside him is a Kalashnikov rifle and in front, in Farsi and English, are the slogans of the revolution. 'America is Extremely Nothy [sic]!' screams one. 'The President of America is Bloodthirsty!' proclaims another. Then in unison the faithful begin to chant: 'Death to America! Death to America!'

But these are the slogans of a bygone age, of an ossified revolution that is almost a quarter of a century old. Now, almost unnoticed by the rest of the world, Iran has lurched into the throes of a new revolution - although where it will lead nobody knows.

Seven years ago 69 per cent of Iranians elected Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami as president, a man who pledged to reform the Islamic Republic in order to save it. Now his reforms have stalled, blocked by powerful hardliners such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme religious leader and successor to Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Islamic hardliners believe Khatami must be stopped. They compare him to Mikhail Gorbachev and say unless his reforms are stopped the Islamic Republic will drift towards collapse - in the same way that reform killed the Soviet Union. And they may be right.

Take a look at the faces at Friday prayers and one thing is clear. Few here are students at Tehran University. They are middle-aged men who made the revolution, alongside blocks of young soldiers, policemen and other members of the security services who had been bused in. The look of boredom as they raise limp fists to chant 'Death to America!' says it all.

Iran's new revolution is not one that is spilling on to the streets - or at least not yet. Although there are increasing numbers of demonstrations by students and angry, unpaid workers, this is not where the real force for change lies.

For the moment it is a social revolution. It is a revolution that is transforming this country from the bottom up, whether the politicians like it or not. Two-thirds of Iran's population is under 30 and it is clear they have little in common with the ageing mullahs who are trying to control their lives.

Behind closed doors, young Iranians are simply getting on with it, especially in the cities. Across Tehran, underground rock bands are thriving, just waiting for the day they can come out into the open. And every month thousands more Iranians are going online.

Today there are 1.75 million Iranians with access to the internet, and in five years that figure is expected to be five million. While the internet is a window on the world, it is also Iran's leap into free speech. Recently newspapers which the government has closed have continued to publish online.

Close to the centre of Tehran is an office which helps coordinate the burgeoning non-governmental sector. Activists say there are now 30,000 NGOs in Iran, dedicated to everything from women's rights to the environment.

And opinion polls consistently show that the vast majority of Iranians want reform - and they want it now. One reformist academic, who asked not to be named, believes the longer hardliners block reforms and fail to ease the social restrictions of the Islamic state, the more problems they are storing up.

He warns that unless change is allowed to develop peacefully, it will still take place 'but the process could be different'. Asked whether that meant there could be violence, he replied: 'There might be such a possibility.'

In the meantime, signs that the social revolution is proceeding apace are everywhere. Across Tehran, ever more girls taunt the hardliners by wearing their obligatory headscarves way back over their head, to reveal as much for bidden hair as possible. Compulsory 'manteau' gowns are getting shorter - and tighter.

One area where the authorities have already lost control is television. Increasingly uninterested by the staple fare of prayers, domestic dramas and news about the Palestinian uprising millions are tuned into satellite television, which is, of course, strictly illegal.

Climb a high building and the evidence is stunning. Mushroom- like clusters of satellite dishes have sprouted across Tehran. If Iranians were simply watching BBC, CNN or MTV that would be bad enough, but what really worries the authorities is that many are tuning in to exile stations broadcasting from the United States. And the star of the satellite show is Reza Pahlavi, son of the last shah.

Until a few years ago hardly any Iranians had seen or heard him. Now satellite television beams the heir to the Peacock Throne into millions of living rooms every week. Although few people think that a restoration of the monarchy is a viable option, the young shah is the only Iranian politician who talks about a secular democracy. That would be well beyond the pale within Iran - but many are intrigued by Pahlavi, especially those too young to remember the bad times under his father. With reforms blocked and an economy under strain, the frustration is palpable. A few weeks ago the remains of 570 Iranians who died during the Iran-Iraq war were returned amid much fanfare. The government arranged well-organised shows of grief, some of which was undoubtedly genuine. But, as the coffins were trundled around Tehran on the backs of lorries, many residents were unimpressed.

'They have been dead for 20 years and now they give us a hard time for some dried-up old bones and close off the streets,' snarled a taxi driver. 'They are idiots!'

Even the powerful merchants of Tehran's bazaar, long regarded as a staunch bastion of the Islamic revolution, are showing signs of exasperation. Like other Iranians, many are too scared to speak, but one man told me how people here were enraged by a decision to let ideology ride roughshod over business.

He said: 'Last year in international rug exhibitions there was talk about sending an invitation to Iranian-Jewish rug merchants who now live abroad, but the government did not allow the Jewish dealers to come and now there is even less business than before.' A colleague added: 'If we could talk freely you could fill that notebook.'

Something has to give. Reformists threaten to abandon parliament, but no one knows what this would mean. Indeed, reformists are split. Omid Memarian, a 27-year-old who helps coordinate Iranian NGOs, says the country has no choice but to continue the path of slow reform. 'Things can't happen in a rush,' he says, arguing that Iranians, who have already experienced a revolution, don't want a return to the past.

Others are not so sure. A human rights activist, who talked on condition of anonymity, says there are 'more than a thousand' political prisoners in Iran. In the provinces unknown rebels will simply disappear, without anyone to raise the alarm for them.

He is scathing about Iran's 'passive' human rights organisations. He believes that, with reforms stalled, activists must go on the offensive and even take their protests on to the streets. 'The time is ripe,' he says. Iran is lurching into the unknown.

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