Tilting on the Axis (of Evil)

I never thought I'd hear "Hotel California" in the bleak desert landscape of Iran. Don Henley's tale of a bad trip was a big hit with our guide, Reza, however, and he'd turn up the volume whenever the song looped around on his tape player. "This could be heaven or this could be hell," Don and Reza sang, as we drove in the mountains near Shiraz, several hundred miles south of the capital Tehran, passing crumbling caravansaries, those vacant hotels once used as inns by travelers on the Silk Road in the Middle East and Asia. "You see," Reza proclaimed, gesturing at his tapes of Western music as we sped past dry, barren mountains chalked with the names of imams, "everything you do in America we can do in Iran." We neared a police checkpoint -- one of many where buses are searched for drugs -- and Reza leaned over and snapped off the music. After we drove past, he turned it back on. "Livin' it up at the Hotel California!" he sang jubilantly. Only later did I understand why Reza interrupted the song every time checkpoints came in sight: Music from the United States is illegal.

Welcome to Iran, which, along with Iraq and North Korea, was cited as part of the "axis of evil" by President Bush in his State of the Union address last year. We're poised for war with Iraq. North Korea is creating almost daily headlines because of its nuclear-weapons program. But the relationship between the United States and Iran is increasingly enigmatic, reflecting, perhaps, the difficulty of dealing with a country whose oppressive regime calls the United States "the Great Satan" and whose people may well be the most pro-American in the region.

Run by a theocracy that the Bush administration has accused of acquiring weapons of mass destruction, opposing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and exporting terrorism, Iran seems to fall neatly on the side of those who are against us, at least in the calculus of President Bush's worldview. But there are other aspects of Iran that complicate a black-and-white verdict. In defiance of previous expectations, Iran's government has become increasingly willing to engage in backroom negotiations with the United States whenever the countries' interests are aligned. And, more importantly, Iran has a young pro-democracy population that is curious to explore relations with the United States. A grass-roots movement for reform is growing out of the soil of the Islamic Republic, and it's one that could help transform the ultimate impediment to Iranian-U.S. rapprochement someday: the regime itself.

For sworn enemies, the United States and Iran found they had a good deal in common after September 11. They shared urgent strategic interests, including the neutralization of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the stabilization of the region. A Shi'a Muslim country, Iran never wanted the Pakistan-supported, radical Sunni Taliban as a neighbor in Afghanistan. Secretly aiding the U.S. campaign to remove the Taliban from power, Iran allowed the transport of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, supplied the Northern Alliance with intelligence and even persuaded ally Burhanuddin Rabbani to abandon his ambitions to lead Afghanistan in favor of the U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai.

The two countries' interests are again aligned with regard to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who launched a 1980 attack against Iran that resulted in eight years of war and 800,000 Iranian casualties. When he wasn't showering Iran with bombs and chemical weapons, Hussein was harboring dissident Iranian groups that staged attacks on Tehran. Once again, the United States and Iran are engaging in covert talks to work out a mutually beneficial agreement -- perhaps the use of Iranian airspace in the event that U.S. pilots are hit by Iraqi fire, or Iran's influence with Iraqi Shi'a opposition groups.

Although Iran's recent cooperation is a hopeful sign in a long history of bristling U.S.-Iran encounters, it's not enough to kick start the process toward long-term cordial relations. There's the matter of Bush's charges against Iran, which the administration continues to stand by even though some countries we are friendly with could easily be subjected to the same charges. (Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons, its past support for the Taliban and the rumors that it is harboring Osama bin Laden in the tribal areas along its borders are a case in point.)

Even more problematic is the history of U.S.-Iranian relations: the U.S.-backed coup in 1953 that reinstated Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power, the Islamic revolution that removed the shah, the 1979 hostage crisis and the severing of diplomatic relations in 1980. That past, along with the hard-line, undemocratic stance of the more powerful branches of the Iranian bureaucracy, is keeping both the United States and the Iranian people at odds with the current regime in Tehran.

Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other conservative clerics set the tone for much of Iran's foreign policy, to the chagrin of the more moderate conservatives and the embattled reformist groups in the government. Hard-liners control the judiciary, the military and the huge Islamic foundations that make up more than 20 percent of the economy. But most importantly, the conservatives hold the trump card of the system -- they form the Guardian Council, the group of 12 appointed officials who, along with Khamenei, have veto power over any legislation offered up by the reformist-dominated parliament. The council, composed of six religious leaders and six Muslim lawyers, is required to ensure that the Iranian law conforms to the principles of Islam.

These conservatives, and the Guardian Council in particular, are the very same "unelected few" that Bush has charged with repressing the Iranian people's desire for freedom. Indeed, a growing number of Iranians are pushing for true democratic reform, a better relationship with the United States, and an end to economic and political isolation. Although a more democratic, transparent and accountable Iran "will continue to have policy differences with the United States," according to University of South Florida political-science professor Mohsen Milani, it would "have the wisdom and popular legitimacy to say, 'Let's talk.'" Such a government, Milani says, would base a potential relationship with the United States on "mutual respect, reciprocity, minimizing the differences ... [and being] willing to cooperate on commonalities."

While the government railed at the term "axis of evil" ("drunken shouts of American officials," thundered Khamenei; "war mongering and insulting," denounced reformist President Mohammed Khatami), some living in Iran felt that the label wasn't entirely inaccurate. "There's so much frustration in all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds," says Afshin Molavi, an Iranian-born, Washington-based journalist who covered Iran for Reuters and The Washington Post and is the author of Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran. Iranians chafe, Molavi says, at "the state of the economy, the failed promises of the revolution and the reform movement, and this intrusive meddling in people's private lives." Iran's economic hardship makes America's land-of-plenty image very tempting for Iranians who think a financial relationship with the United States could bring much-needed capital to the country.

Iranians seem as interested in America's social freedoms as they do in its economic wealth, although Iran itself has become more socially permissive since the landslide election of Khatami in 1997 and his re-election in 2001. As we sat in a fancy hotel in Esfahan, a large city about 250 miles south of Tehran, our guide, Reza, sipped tea and regarded the young couples around us. They were murmuring and discreetly holding hands. We were in a tourist area, and it seemed a safe place for behavior that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Indeed, the conservative element in Iran still frowns on public displays of affection between unrelated men and women. "You cannot tell the young people they can't be young," Reza said. "It is unnatural." But the freedoms still come with a price. They're either justified with an ingenious faux-Muslim veneer -- "The Prophet Muhammad would have allowed women's motorcycle lessons!" -- or are enjoyed with trepidation at the consequences of being caught or punished.

On one Tehran street corner, a wall splashed with the forbidding countenances of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the father of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which overthrew the shah and introduced a new government in Iran) and Khamenei rise over a busy intersection. Just to the side of the mural stands a billboard bearing words in small English script: "Enjoyment Matters." This juxtaposition illustrates a leitmotif I saw throughout Iran during my 10-day trip there last fall: an obeisance to those in power coupled with a kind of hedonistic rebelliousness. Take the availability of Barbie, for example. In 2002, the Islamic Republic condemned the doll -- with its buxom figure, revealing clothes, capitalistic lifestyle and that naughtiest of accessories, a boyfriend -- as a "wanton" agent of loose Western morals. Instead of Barbie, toy stores were to push Dara and Sara, the official brother-and-sister dolls of the Islamic Republic. Sara is 8 years old, a year shy of the age when girls must start wearing the Islamic headscarf and loose overcoat. Yet she's sold with headscarves anyway. But at an upscale toy store in Tehran, merchants had managed to both obey the edict and demonstrate its futility: One or two Dara and Sara dolls were displayed on countertops, while behind them loomed a wall of pink Barbie boxes that rose from floor to ceiling.

In the same neighborhood, Reza sought out a small, mustached man, who led us into a darkened stairway in a mall and pulled out a large garbage bag. It was filled with bootleg CDs of music from Iranian singers living in Los Angeles. We purchased some as Reza cheerfully repeated his mantra about Iranians being able to do everything we can in America. You just need to know the right people to buy music, or in case the police confiscate your tapes.

For more serious breaches of Islamic law, the punishments are more severe. News of public hangings, random arrests and interrogations have taken a toll on Iranians' sense of security, which is further exacerbated by the lack of a free press to counteract rumors and conspiracy theories. In a perfect Foucauldian moment, two Iranian friends attempted to point out komiteh, volunteer "morals police" who don't hesitate to beat women showing too much hair or couples holding hands. We couldn't find them, but it didn't matter. They were inside peoples' heads -- everyone had a friend of a friend who had just been beaten; the komiteh were simultaneously everywhere and nowhere -- and the threat of brutality was enough to foster Iranians' inner vigilance over their own actions.

In this Big Brother atmosphere, it's not surprising that the students have rebelled. Sixty percent of the population is under 25, and the children of the Islamic Revolution have little memory or fondness for the revolution's ideals. The young people know only crushing unemployment, officially estimated at 16 percent and unofficially at 25 percent. The constraints on their personal and political freedoms, and the rising rates of HIV infection and drug use, are also pressing concerns.

The chain of events that unleashed student anger most recently began last June, when noted University of Hamedan professor Hashem Aghajari presented a speech on the nature of "Islamic Protestantism." Iran's ruling clerics had told young people that they couldn't understand the meaning of the Koran on their own, Aghajari said. The mullahs, he explained, had twisted the faith to justify their own actions and misdeeds, from living lives of luxury in the face of widespread hardship to torturing human-rights activists. "We need a religion that respects the rights of all," Aghajari declared, "a progressive religion rather than a traditional religion that tramples the people."

Five months after making his speech, Aghajari was handed a death sentence for blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad and insulting the imams and state religious officials. Students began protesting soon afterward, and their demands spread beyond Aghajari's pardon and release. They called for the release of all political prisoners. They took up the cause of three pollsters who are on trial for espionage. (The pollsters had publicized their findings that 74.4 percent of Iranians want a dialogue with the United States.) And weary of Khatami's unfulfilled promises of reform, the students called for his resignation, along with that of the head of the judiciary.

The protests have significant symbolic value, says Haleh Esfandiari, head of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars' Middle East Project, but she also noted the resiliency of the current regime. "I don't think regimes change because a couple thousand students protest ... but the students' call is reverberating." Iranian human-rights lawyer, activist and former political prisoner Mehrangiz Kar is more hopeful. The students have thrown down the gauntlet, she says, by demanding the one thing she says may shake the system: a referendum on what kind of government the Iranian people want.

These tactics seem to be working. In mid-November, Khamenei was forced by popular demand to call for a review of Aghajari's case. In early December, Khatami criticized the arrest of the three pollsters, whose survey had been commissioned by the reformist parliament. Hard-liners walked out of this same parliament when reformists urged them to listen to the students.

Most crucial of all, the protests are highlighting two key bills that Khatami recently proposed. One, preventing the Guardian Council from vetting potential political candidates, has already passed parliament. That bill could allow for a stronger reformist than Khatami, or even secular candidates who can't currently hold political positions, to run for office. The other bill would expand Khatami's powers to suspend judicial convictions he found unconstitutional. It's likely the Guardian Council will veto the bills. Preparing for that scenario, reformists are debating whether to call for a referendum or to stage a mass resignation from all government posts, which could plunge Iran into a crisis.

For some, change can't come soon enough. On the day I left Iran, Reza and a friend studying there began to debate politics. My friend, who had grown up abroad and returned to Iran for the first time as an adult, had recently sat on the men's section of the bus rather than stand (the women's section in the rear was full). "Why should I stand if there is room?" she asked, eyes flashing. She hated the double lives, the lack of freedom and opportunities, and the hypocrisy of the government. "Why lead a life that is a lie?" she asked. Reza responded just as hotly. "You don't understand," he explained. "Iran is a Muslim country. Change must come slowly."

He walked outside and stood in the mountain air (we had driven up from Tehran to escape the choking smog). I turned over his words in my head, tried to reconcile them with the man who had mentioned that if he could go to the United States, he would live there. This despite his pride when talking of Iran's beauty and warmth, his desire to debunk tourists' misperceptions. I asked Reza why he would want to leave the country he so clearly loved.

He struggled, and finally answered. "Because," he said, "change in Iran is too slow."

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