The Iran Project

The Islamic Revolution at Ground Zero

By Reese Erlich

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WALTER CRONKITE: American news coverage of Iran often focuses on conflicts with the US or disputes among Iran's governing elite. But we hear less about the profound grassroots changes in Iran over the past 21 years. What do ordinary Iranians think of the Islamic revolution? And how do those views impact government policy? Producer Reese Erlich begins the story in Amaameh, a rural town northeast of Tehran.

(sound of garage door opening)

ERLICH: Hassan Khavari gives a mighty shove and opens the door at his small oil change garage.

HASSAN KHAVARI: We put new oil and we change the filters and we do it in the old fashion way.

ERLICH: Khavari is a village elder. He holds no political office, but people go to him for advice and to informally settle disputes. Sitting in a bare office next to his garage, Khavari says the revolution has improved life for rural folks.

HASSAN KHAVARI: Before the revolution, all those boulevards and the streets that you see didn't exist. We didn't have electricity. We only had some small houses made out of clay and right now that you see that we have this boulevard and it's much nicer than many neighborhoods in Tehran.

ERLICH: Khavari says in the old days, the US dominated Iran. Iranians resented American officials, military officers and businessmen in part because they enjoyed immunity from prosecution.

HASSAN KHAVARI: The Americans were controlling our lives. If an American citizen would commit a crime in Iran, he or she would be treated under the American law. And that's like slavery. They could do whatever they wanted.

ERLICH: The US has maintained economic sanctions against Iran for over 21 years, something Khavari sees as a source of Iran's economic problems today: 17% unemployment and 30% inflation. But even more than those issues, he worries about the decline in Islamic morality. Khavari's brother Ahmad says the reforms have gone too far.

AHMAD KHAVARI: Islam tells us that people, who are not related to a woman, should not see one piece of her hair or one piece of skin. But now you do and this is not acceptable under Islam.

ERLICH: While they support President Khatami on other matters, these two brothers in rural Iran would close the door on him if Iran strays too far from a strict interpretation of Muslim morality.

Such conservative attitudes on social issues are widespread in Iran and they set the parameters for Iranian politics, even for the reformers.

(telephone ringing)

Students here at the Organization for Fostering Unity, the country's main student organization, say reformers are hardly a united group. Some are nationalists others are secular leftists. But the vast majority are firm believers in the Islamic republic, who want more democracy within the existing system.

(door opening and closing)

Student leader, Ali Afshari welcomes visitors into his office. It's certainly a grassroots operation. Foam rubber peeks out of slits in the chair cushions and paint peels off the walls. Ashfari strongly supports close ties between Mosque and State. But he objects to the existence of a new, conservative elite.

ALI AFSHARI: When I entered the University, people in certain very conservative organizations got special treatment. So we formed local organizations to create equality.

ERLICH: In 1979, leaders of the Islamic revolution promised to fight poverty and create an egalitarian society. Today, a new elite of businessmen and clerics control the country. Iranian reformers advocate democratic change, but that doesn't mean they want a US style system, says Afshari.

ALI AFSHARI: For over 50 years, America has worked to weaken democracy in Iran. America must acknowledge our right to sovereignty and our interests. The US must create trust, remove its military forces from the Persian Gulf, and end the sanctions against Iran.

ERLICH: Afshari says, many young people are losing patience with President Khatami, who has elected promising reforms, but frequently backs down in the face of conservative attacks. Afshari, for example, criticizes the President for failing to help reopen dozens of reformist newspapers closed by conservative judges last year.

ALI AFSHARI: Many reformers don't have anyway to publish their views. There hasn't been enough down to allow formation of new political parties. There is not enough freedom for organizations. But our main criticism is against the conservatives. They are making it hard for President Khatami to carry out reform.

ERLICH: Interestingly enough, Afshari turns out to be a rather mild critic of Khatami compared to some other young people.

(Sounds of people walking and running)

On Friday mornings, thousands of young people hike for miles along dirt paths here in the stone park above Tehran. A group of ten friends stop to listen to music from a boom box.

(Music, talking and laughing)

A casual conversation quickly turns angry as Roya, age 23, denounces the status of women in Iran.

ROYA: I would like to see move freedom, more equality. Girls can't play certain sports, and there are few sports facilities for girls. The militias still come after us. At a birthday party for my family, they took us away for wearing makeup and claimed we were a mixed group of unrelated boys and girls. They held us for two days.

ERLICH: While it doesn't happen frequently these days, government sanctioned militias can still detain women with inadequate head coverings, or groups of unrelated men and women congregating together. Roya was the victim of precisely the conservative policies advocated by auto garage owner Hassan Khavari.

(Persian music and singing)

Iran is a deeply divided society. A large majority of Iranians voted for reform when they elected President Khatami in 1997 and put a majority of reformists into the parliament in 2000. But the President and parliament don't hold real power. Conservative clerics maintain control through the courts, right-wing vigilantes, police and military. And the conservatives certainly have a popular base of support. Mohammad Abtahi, first secretary to President Khatami says, some young people push too hard and give conservatives an excuse to crack down.

MOHAMMAD ALI ABTAHI: They elevate the demands of the society to a point that they're not, it's not possible to fulfill them and it just leads to confrontations and conflict.

ERLICH: Abtahi says youthful militants don't appreciate the depth of conservative sentiment in Iran.

MOHAMMAD ALI ABTAHI: There are people inside who should limit their demands and expectations and balance their demands and expectations. So even if there are people who want this place to become like Switzerland, they should remember that apart from belief issues, there is a culture here and this culture is embedded in the people. And if a government comes into power, and it's not saying that it regards or basically all it has to do is ignore or disregard this culture and they, honestly say, it would be an unsuccessful government. You should accept the fact that one of the main reasons for the downfall of the Shah was his neglecting of the religious issues of the people.

ERLICH: President Khatami, himself an Islamic clergyman, seems likely to continue with his go-slow policies. But pressure from below is constantly boiling up. Roya, interviewed in Stone Park, typifies the impatience of many young Iranians.

ROYA: President Khatami has made a lot of promises, but hasn't come through. Maybe they haven't allowed him to make the reforms but maybe he was just trying to get votes.

(Persian music)

ERLICH: Because Iranian society itself is so deeply split the battle between conservatives and reformers will likely continue for some time. When presidential elections take place this spring, Iranians will have another chance to express their views about the need for reform - and how fast it should come. For the Iran Project, I'm Reese Erlich in Tehran.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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