Sunday, June 04, 2006

Inside Iran

Christine Spolar, The Chicago Tribune:
Surrounded by billowy white wedding gowns, in a neighborhood where voters fervently supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a year ago, dressmaker Mahdi Hushyar offered a quick retort when asked about Iran's nuclear ambitions and U.S. pressure to thwart them.

"It's a lying game," said the bridal shop owner from the poor southern district of Javadiyeh.

"Our problem is we don't know what is right. Are the reports on CNN right? Are the reports on our TV right?" he asked. "And the letter our president sent to yours--does anyone know what it all means?" READ MORE

Amid growing diplomatic tensions over the nation's pursuit of nuclear power, the people of Iran are left to decipher an odd sort of nuclear code.

Their thoughts are clouded by worries of weaponry and war, peace and justice and whether a national goal for nuclear power will lead to ruinous confrontation.

Tehran's lively, leafy boulevards put a pretty face on a deeply worried country. The new conservative government has dithered with changing economic prospects for the last year. High oil prices have kept cash and services flowing, but inflation is rising. Investment is flagging, and the costs of importing processed fuel are sapping growth.

Iranians see the government's demand for nuclear power as a hope and a threat. Pursuing nuclear technology should be the right of a modern nation, they agree. But they fear that possible economic sanctions or even military confrontation with the West would spell disaster for a society eager for broad and better horizons.

In teahouses, markets, cafes, even after Friday prayers, Iranians engage in long and sometimes heated conversations about the problem. Many assert quickly that they believe Iran is working on peaceful nuclear energy and not atomic warheads.

That must be why, some say, Ahmadinejad sent a letter to President Bush in early May--a 17-page missive that Bush administration officials discounted as an odd ramble--to raise the subject in a personal way and to try to stifle international ire and the threat of sanctions.

But most also concede that their calculations are built on hunches.

Their press is heavy with self-congratulatory government pronouncements and political analysis. The leadership has a deceitful track record, hiding a nuclear program for eight years only to be detected by international monitors. Web sites and satellite television reports fill in some holes, but the reality gap between Iran and the rest of the world runs so deep and wide that many people confess only one certainty:

They can't be certain of anything when it comes to Iran, the United States and nuclear power.

"Conversations are never straightforward in Iran. Never," said Omid Barsegha, an out-of-work computer technician. "We never ask straight questions. And we don't give straight answers.

"The president has been better in some ways," added Barsegha, who supported Ahmadinejad a year ago and likes how the president baits the West.

"Think about it: You might not like what he says. You might be annoyed by what he says. But you know, in the end, what he means. It is clear cut," Barsegha said. "What's the use of him pretending and saying good things to the West. . . . I mean, look at Bush: He speaks nicely, and see how we suffer."

Iranians laugh or shrug at the idea that the Persian approach to nuclear talks has frustrated the West. Daily life itself can be a matter of some frustration in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation of 68 million people where two-thirds are younger than 30 and religious conviction and constrictions are the norm.

Gauging small movements

People are forever trying to gauge how the republic will affect their lives by tracking small movements and change, particularly under Ahmadinejad's government and the powerful religious clerics who guide the country.

An Islamic dress code for women is under consideration. Movies made in the time of former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist in power for eight years, are being freshly reviewed by state censors.

But others say that Ahmadinejad, a former Tehran mayor who successfully portrayed himself as a populist presidential candidate, is wary of economic woes suffered by the young and has scant interest in causing more pain. Social freedoms are unlikely to be seriously cut back, they say, as the government struggles with its spiraling financial outlook and its nuclear challenge.

Food prices are climbing. Jobs are hard to find. Universities are strapped for cash, and educational horizons are limited.

Ahmadinejad promised economic reforms in his campaign, but in his first year in office, he has yet to produce a comprehensive plan for growth.

Instead, he has tried to make nuclear energy a point of national pride. Last month's announcement that Iran had achieved some uranium enrichment was broadcast as a television extravaganza.

He has made other gestures, which some analysts call negligible in substance, to lighten the Iranian mood.

This spring, Ahmadinejad proposed that women be welcomed at soccer matches. He abandoned the idea only after leaders in the religious city of Qom held firm.

In Iran, outside their homes, women must always wear head scarves and overcoats that cover their thighs. The trendiest in Tehran sport filmy scarves that expose their curls, or spiked heels to show off their ankles and the latest pair of capris. But no one dares totally flout restrictions, fearing the police patrols.

Men also have complaints. One related how he sliced away a small American flag, a tag stitched into the seam of his new jeans, to please one aggressive police patrol. A teenage boy said he was forced to wear his T-shirt inside out so a pop band emblem wouldn't offend.

The point is clear: People are to know that authorities are in control. Bigger problems, and outspoken challenges to the status quo, are quickly hushed or spun by state-run media.

Students fought with police last month at Amir Kabir University of Technology in Tehran in a protest reportedly over an attempt to bar elected reformist members of the school council from taking office. Windows were smashed; the BBC reported some students were injured.

In northwest Iran, independent and local media also reported in late May a series of protests by ethnic Azeris, the country's largest minority group. Four people were reportedly killed, 70 injured and more than 300 arrested in a week of unrest. Last Sunday, police in the capital quickly dispersed a crowd of Azeris protesting outside parliament.

Both outbursts were painted by Ahmadinejad and other officials as plots and products of Western meddling, with veiled illusions to suspicions that the United States wants to destabilize Iran and derail its nuclear program.

Because of the tortured history between the two countries, most Iranians believe there is plenty of reason to worry. In 1953, the CIA was involved in maneuvering Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into power through a coup. In 1979, Iranian students overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, holding diplomats hostage for more than a year and accusing the Americans of plotting to ruin the Islamic Revolution. In January, The New Yorker magazine reported that U.S. military operatives were working inside Iran to stir up dissension.

The magazine reported that U.S. military action, even a nuclear option, was also being considered. Bush officials downplayed the account, but Iranians have taken it to heart.

They are pawns, many say, in a global game of truth or consequences.

"If you're located in a strategic position and you've been under constant attack, you want to have this weapon," said Shahab, a 25-year-old university student who was too worried about retribution to give his family name but who conversed, for two hours, about Iran's politics and nuclear efforts.

"I don't know if they are lying, . . . but it is OK to lie about it," he said about the Iranian leadership. "The Western governments are pushing so hard that they don't have any other choice."

Mariam, a 28-year-old graphic artist tapping away on a laptop computer in a cafe, said she couldn't care less about politics but she had no doubts about Iranian subterfuge. "Of course they're lying," she said about Iran's denial of pursuing enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb.

"When people here start something, they want to finish it," she said, explaining the efforts to rebuff Western offers to impede the program. "I don't think Iran would use it but, of course, they're after an atomic weapon."

Mariam, who also wouldn't give her last name, scoffed at Western interest in whether she wears a head scarf or when she can attend sporting events. "Listen, it's an Islamic country. These are the rules. I don't need to be told how to dress, but I will follow the rules.

"What I really want is a better economy," she added. "When I have nothing to do, no money, not enough teachers ... I find this other talk unimportant."

`These are just slogans'

There are acres of graves in Tehran's only cemetery. A half-million Iranians died in an eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s; many are buried here. At dusk, 27-year-old Abdullah Zardeh stops, as he does every day, to wash sweet-smelling rosewater over the marble slab of his brother, dead 18 years.

As night fell, the young man wondered why any leader, Iraqi or American, would want more weapons or military confrontation. His family, he said, has never recovered from its loss.

"I don't care about atomic bombs or warheads or any of those things that the leaders of the countries talk about," Zardeh said. "The Iranians are putting out slogans that they will fight any oppressors. But these are just slogans.

"No one wants war. No one."