Iran, a Nation of Political Surprises

Worshippers gather on Friday at Tehran's main mosque. i i

Worshippers gather for Friday prayers at an outdoor gathering area of Tehran University. Men and women are segregated. Mike Shuster, NPR hide caption

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Worshippers gather on Friday at Tehran's main mosque.

Worshippers gather for Friday prayers at an outdoor gathering area of Tehran University. Men and women are segregated.

Mike Shuster, NPR
At a recent Friday prayer service, Ayatollah Imami Kashani, at left, urged worshippers to vote. i i

At a recent Friday prayer service in Tehran, Ayatollah Imami Kashani, at left, urged worshippers to vote in the June 17 election. He is a member of the Guardian Council, a 12-member body that can qualify or disqualify candidates for political office. Mike Shuster, NPR hide caption

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At a recent Friday prayer service, Ayatollah Imami Kashani, at left, urged worshippers to vote.

At a recent Friday prayer service in Tehran, Ayatollah Imami Kashani, at left, urged worshippers to vote in the June 17 election. He is a member of the Guardian Council, a 12-member body that can qualify or disqualify candidates for political office.

Mike Shuster, NPR
A small girl walks with women heeding the call to Friday prayers in Tehran. i i

A small girl walks with women heeding the call to Friday prayers in Tehran. Men and women worship at the same time, but in separate areas. Mike Shuster, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Shuster, NPR
A small girl walks with women heeding the call to Friday prayers in Tehran.

A small girl walks with women heeding the call to Friday prayers in Tehran. Men and women worship at the same time, but in separate areas.

Mike Shuster, NPR
Shirin Ebadi, Iran's most prominent human rights activist and winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize

Shirin Ebadi, Iran's most prominent human rights activist and winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, says the Guardian Council should not have the power to determine the qualifications of candidates for elected office. Mike Shuster, NPR hide caption

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"In Iran, everybody hates the regime," a young man told me recently, "including the regime."

We were having dinner at one of Tehran's new trendy restaurants, specializing in Asian fusion. It's located in a small shopping mall, filled with coffee houses where young men and women gather for talk and romance. The religious police still descend on the place from time to time to break up this "un-Islamic" socializing, but only occasionally.

"What do you mean?" I asked my dinner companion, who prefers to remain anonymous for the time being.

"I mean that even those inside the regime are always complaining about how things operate in Iran."

He cited a conversation a friend had related involving a senior figure in one of Iran's government ministries. The official's frustration with the Islamic Republic, and the regime he ostensibly served, was evident.

Disillusionment runs deep in Iran, with the nation's political leaders, its religious establishment, and with the impasse the nation has reached 25 years after the Islamic Revolution.

Right now, Iran is in the midst of a presidential election campaign. Many people have announced their intention to run — at least half a dozen from the conservative camp, and almost as many reformers. The election will be held on June 17.

There is no enthusiasm for this election in Iran. In public opinion polls, most of the candidates attract around 4 percent. The strongest individual isn't a candidate yet (as of the first week in May). He's former president Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran's best-known figures, one of the richest, and possibly one of the most corrupt. Rafsanjani has not announced that he will definitely be a candidate, but he is toying with the idea and the nation's press are all too willing to play along. Still, in opinion polls, even Rafsanjani can't muster much more than 13 percent support.

In Iran this disillusionment with politics matters. President Bush may have included Iran in the "axis of evil" along with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea. But in Iran, elections are important and their outcome is not preordained. Officials and analysts of all political views told me that they fear a very low turnout in the June presidential election — a turnout of around 30 percent — will call into question the legitimacy of a new Iranian government.

In today's Iran, if the regime has to take into account public opinion, it must respond to the press as well. Even though the clerics and their conservative political supporters have shut down dozens of newspapers and magazines over the years, there is still an active and varied press. They can have an important impact on the government.

The controversy swirling around Iran's nuclear activities is a good example.

When the Iranian government agreed last year to suspend the enrichment of uranium, pending talks with Great Britain, France, and Germany, senior Iranian officials were quick to say this wasn't a freeze. It was a suspension, they insisted, and it was temporary. Officials maintained that Iran was well within its rights, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and international law, to enrich uranium. They also insisted that Iran would resume uranium enrichment soon.

That was 11 months ago. So far the suspension has stuck. As a result, Iranian officials have had to go through some verbal contortions to explain their position to the Iranian public.

At a recent weekly briefing for the press at the Foreign Ministry in Tehran, spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi faced a barrage of questions on this subject. Every other question was, "Well, you said you were going to resume uranium enrichment — so tell us when?"

These were questions from a wide variety of news outlets, not all of them conservative supporters of the government. There was a distinct feeling in the room that these reporters were doing what reporters do everywhere — hold officials accountable for their statements and decisions.

Asefi's reply was defiant. "Of course we are going to restart our enrichment program." When? "Soon."

If you only listen to comments generated from this briefing — which are widely reported by Western wire services — you would have to conclude that the negotiations with the Europeans are near collapse and Iran is on the verge of restarting its enrichment activities, a dangerous step in the view of the Bush administration.

But if you take into consideration the comments of Iranian officials who speak to the international community such as Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi, who has been attending the U.N. conference that started in early May in New York on the Nonproliferation Treaty, you would hear a much more moderate tone. Iran wants the talks with the Europeans to succeed, Kharazzi has said, even as it reserves its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

In Iran, as in most of the world, there are things said for domestic consumption, and things said for the world outside.

The confusion about Iran often arises from just this distinction, aggravated of course by its duel power structures. Religious and secular. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei versus the President Mohammed Khatami. The cleric-dominated Guardian Council versus the Parliament.

Over the past eight years, Iran has seen a struggle unfold for power. Outgoing President Khatami lost that struggle. The conservative clerics for the moment have prevailed.

But at what price? There is a powerful majority of the electorate in favor of reform and change in Iran. That was evident when Khatami won election in 1997 and then re-election in 2001 by a landslide. Evident too in the election of a reformist parliament in 2000.

Now those voters are disillusioned. Many of them will not vote in June. They are angry, mostly with the reformers who promised change but were unable to deliver.

If they stay away from the polls, that in itself will be a challenge to any new government.

Iran may be many things, but it is not a simple dictatorship. There is a degree of democracy in Iran, and in fits and starts, it's been growing over the years. Iran's conservative clerics may want absolute power, but they don't have it.

My young dinner companion said Iran is on the path to become a liberal democracy. Perhaps he was being overly optimistic. Many in Iran would say so.

But Iran is a nation of surprises. It is always changing. It is not predictable.

Americans should know that.

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