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31 July 1997 Edition

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Iran awakes to a new ideological revolution

Special report by Ann Maguire in Teheran

Seventeen years after the Islamic revolution lead by Khomeini, Iranians are craving for more freedom. The moderate cleric President who begins his mandate in August is a sign that Iran has come to an ideological turning point.

Iran is a country where the power of convictions rule and victories against imperialistic States are the stuff of myth. Our cab driver can't help grinning as he pulls up on the Bobby Sands Street in Teheran where the tall walls barricade the British Embassy. ``See, we know who he was and what happened to him and the others'', he boasts before explaining how ``the English have tried to move the embassy because they are embarrassed to have people wait for their visas on the street of a man who stood up against them''. But whatever the location, the British Embassy will always be on the same street. ``All Iranians remember what happened to him and the others'', he boasts before cracking a few jokes about how ``them roast-beefs tired to steal our oil''.

As the orange taxi stops under the street sign where the name of the hunger-striker is printed in Farsi and Latin characters, his eyes lighten up. ``Bobby Sands was murdered because of his convictions. We too have very strong convictions. This is hopefully what will make things change in our country'', he whispers.

The will for change has rarely been so high in Iran. Seventeen years after the Islamic revolution lead by Khomeini, the blind faith in religious values, in the fight against imperialistic states and the hopes of an equal society have gradually faded. ``Its as if the revolutionary ideology died when Imam Khomeini did in 19**, comments Ali Shapour, English teacher at Teheran University. He was one of the strongest and most charismatic figures of history and no one has been able to replace him among Iranians''.

Today, the people have lost trust in a clerical government which is synonym of an intrusive, stifling and corrupt leadership. The turbaned mullahs are accused of not being able to put an end to the persistent economical crisis and outrageous inflation rates that have overcast the potential of the oil-rich state. In the past months, the application of strict Islamic rules, that for example lead to foreign media and culture censorship, have encouraged public protests that would have been crushed in no time by the security forces a few months back.

It is clear that Iran has reached a turning point. The western image of Iran evokes religious fanaticism and submissive women. Iran is automatically associated with the Salman Rhusdie case. But this image clashes with reality. After the notorious religious revolution, another has awakened, advocating more freedom, modernism and openness. A spirt of rebellion lingers, especially among the youth, women and sorely harassed intellectuals. ``It is as if we have woken up from years of hibernation'', explains a senior editor of the leading Women's magazine Zena. We have had enough of a regime that interferes constantly with our private lives. As good Muslims, we will always follow the Islamic laws. We will always go to the mosque three times a day and will pray together. But what goes on behind closed doors is our own business. The youth are becoming more sensitive to this and if the government give us more freedom, the youth in particular will stir up trouble''.

The change of mentality is obvious in everyday life, even if religion stays a key value. The government and the ``guardians of the Islamic revolution'', who control the police forces, have become more tolerant on the so-called ``moral rules'' vehemently opposed by the youth. Although make-up is strictly forbidden and subject to a fine, women of all ages stroll in town with pick or red lipstick and heaps of mascara and blush painted on their faces. They hav also transformed the obligatory veil into a fashion item, loosely knotting a coloured scarf over their hair and wearing an overcoat of the same colour. At the university, number of of teachers have taken the risk or organising foreign literature courses which would officially be prohibited. Relationships have always been a problem, as it is punishable for girls to go out with a man who is not a close-family relative. But teenagers seem to not care. It is common for them to meet up with their boyfriends in parks and cafes before driving off to a party where alcoholic drinks are served and ``satanic music'' such as techno and rock n'roll echo till the early hours of the morning.

As the young brave the rules, younger children and families who can afford it watch the latest Miss Venezuela contest or more commonly American-style soap operas brought to them by the prohibited satellite dish. ``People are willing to take more risks today,'' resumed Ali, a factory work who had to pay a £50 fine to get his 20-year-old son out of a ``punishment house'' where he had been kept a night after the police had raided a private birthday party.'' It has become a gambling game fo us to defy the rule and give ourselves our own freedom''.

The status of women has also long been misjudged by the west and is not comparable with Arab countries of the Middle East or Algeria. As the main pillar of the family, the majority bring up their children and stay at home. But women also occupy posts of high responsibility in private companies or within the governmental administration and ministries.

The most obvious sign of the wish for more freedom and modernism came with the stunning presidential vote last May. For many months, it had been a foregone conclusion that the new President would be the conservative speaker of parliament Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri. As the establishment candidate, he had been backed by the government. In a system where political parties are forbidden and the candidates pre-elected by a religious council, the new President turned out to be Mohammed Khatami, a moderate cleric whose landslide victory (68.7%) was a revolution in itself and was interpreted as a protest vote.

As a former culture minister Khatami was forced to resign after having advocated too much cultural freedom. But his views hadn't changed with the years. During his western style political campaign, the new president, nicknamed Ayatollah Gorbatchev, had given a new interpretation of an Islamic republic and some real hope for change, promising for example female portfolios within his cabinet and massive cultural reforms.

But the president's followers seem to hope for more than he will actually be able to deliver in August, when he take sup his new office. All reforms will be bound to the approval of the very conservative parliament, and the final word of the supreme religious leader. On foreign policy, Khatami will also have to face number of problems. He will have to deal with dead-lock relations between Iran, America and especially European Union countries, including Ireland, who cut all relations after a Berlin court ruled that Iranian leaders had been implicated in the murder of two opposition members. The new president is also expected by all toe encourage progress in the Middle-East peace process and the future status of Palestine.

Although hopes are unreasonably high, Iranians don't seem too concerned about what Khatami will be able to achieve. What counts is that the voice advocating change and freedom was heard. The leadership, in which the new President appears like a black sheep, now have no choice but to listen to the peace. What counts more than all is to reform by following the firm convictions of Iranians that more freedom is the best bet for the future.


Iranian political prisoners die on hunger strike



The Association of Iranian Political Prisoners in exile reports that four political prisoners who had gone on ``dry'' hunger strike, along with tens of others, in Tabriz prison since June 24 died on July 5.

Iranian officials, ``Guardians'', informed their families of the deaths, citing stomach haemorrhage, and forbade the families to hold funerals.

The association suspects that the four - Jafar Abbasi, Abdolreza Hamedi, Hamidreza Dadashi and Mehrdad Vesoghi - may have died from torture, following repeated reports of torture in order to break the hunger strikers' resistance and make them eat.

Since July 2, political prisoners have not been allowed to receive visitors, to prevent news of the hunger strike and deaths being publicised outside the prisons. The father of one Tabriz prison hunger striker was told that his son, along with 27 other hunger strikers, was transferred to Evin prison in Tehran.

Families fear the transfer story could be a cover for their deaths. The ban son family visits in Shiraz, Isfahan, Tabriz and Ahwaz prisons have also brought an anxiety to prisoners' families and more rumours of deaths of political prisoners, hunger striking since June 7.

In another report, Mohsen Tonavi and six other political prisoners detained din the prison in Isfahan city, are thought to have been executed.

The association is calling on organisations and individuals to protest to the Iranian government for the lives of the political prisoners and hunger strikers. Messages can be sent to the Embassy of the Islamic Republican of Iran, PO Box 3219, Manuka ACT 2603; fax (06) 290 2431.

From Green Left Weekly, Australia 23 July
GUE-NGL-new-Jan-2106

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