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Iranians Hopeful Moderation Remains

Added: (Sat Nov 20 1999)

Pressbox (Press Release) - By BRIAN MURPHY Associated Press Writer

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - On rooftops in a leafy suburb above the smog, some satellite dishes have come out of hiding.

Their owners know it's still illegal to watch foreign broadcasts. There's just not much pressure to maintain the old deceptions such as concealing the dishes behind laundry lines or crates.

A few exposed dishes hardly count as a bold cry against Islamic rulers and their controls. It's a murmur.

But listen closely around Iran's capital and you hear it everywhere: a confidence that the breathing room opened by moderate President Mohammed Khatami two years ago is not going to be choked off by his hard-line critics.

At Tehran's first Internet cafe, patrons browse almost any Web site. Once-banned nationalist songs and satire are performed at dinner clubs. Underground entrepreneurs deliver bootleg videos to people's homes for a weekly rental of 50,000 rials ($6.25). The racy 'Eyes Wide Shut' is currently hot. A soft-porn TV channel, Venus, is available via satellite.

Outside, young lovers hold hands in public and the Islamic coverings for teen-age girls grow shorter and tighter with diminishing regard for the
basij,'' the volunteer squads that were once the unchallenged morality enforcers.

"I wouldn't say this is paradise. But at least we're not always looking over our shoulders all the time now," said Ahmad Esteqalian, who runs a catering company.

Many still do, however. Twenty years of being hyper-cautious is hard to wipe away.

The Internet cafe blocks access to any sexually explicit sites to avoid handing authorities an obvious reason to close them down. At the Alighapoo restaurant, the host takes the stage between sets of Persian music to remind women to have fun but keep their head scarves on.

This is the kind of seesaw world experienced these days by most Iranians: Buoyed by new freedoms one minute; pulled back to earth by realities the next. Somewhere there may be an equilibrium. But likely not until after parliamentary elections in February.

The outcome of the polls could help cement Khatami's vision of a nation less obsessed with being an Islamic standard bearer and more occupied with the business of trying to fix its many problems, including sticky relations with the West and a stumbling economy.

But religious hard-liners are not prepared to step aside quietly and are mobilizing to try to block Khatami's allies from sweeping the polls.

Abdollah Nouri, a former interior minister and a close Khatami ally, was proclaimed guilty by a jury of clergymen Nov. 11 on some of the most serious charges ever brought against a senior politician in Iran's Islamic government. The jury's opinion was sent to a judge who will issue the actual verdict, which could include jail time.

The decision by a seven-man jury covered 15 charges ranging from publishing lies, insulting Islamic sanctities and advocating better ties with Iran's archenemies, the United States and Israel.

The legal action appeared aimed at preventing Nouri from running for parliament speaker. A hard-liner, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, has been the speaker of the 270-seat chamber since 1990.

Fearing defeat in the elections, the hard-liners have escalated their pre-emptive strikes.

Government agencies still dominated by the hard-liners have closed several newspapers - most recently the crusading Neshat, whose top editor has been charged with insulting Islam. Nouri's popular newspaper, Khordad, could also become a target.

The conservatives may still have judicial clout, but public backing is clearly waning.

At the office of the closed newspaper Neshat, publisher Hamidreza Jalaei Pour believes it's only a matter of time before the conservatives are shoved aside.

"We need to begin looking at Islam as just a religion, not an ideology," he said.

Both sides, however, are being extremely careful not to rekindle the student-led protests that gripped Tehran in July. The rallies began as denunciations of the press clampdowns and escalated after thugs attacked a student dormitory.

There are more potential flashpoints. A probe into the killings of intellectuals and reformers has allegedly implicated factions in the intelligence service. On Nov. 2, a court sentenced three people to prison terms ranging from six months to three years for publishing a play in a student journal that allegedly blasphemed Islam.

At the base of the uncertainty lies a creaky economy. Iran is blessed with huge oil reserves. But that's not enough to fuel an economic engine for a nation with weak international investment, a burgeoning young population and an economy largely controlled by huge foundations that answer only to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The United States, which classifies Iran as a sponsor of terrorism, blocks all U.S. trade with Iran and threatens sanctions against others who do.

The desperation for foreign capital creates some interesting contrasts. Iran - never shy about supporting an Islamic cause - has been conspicuously silent about Russia's military offensive against Muslim insurgents in Chechnya. Russia is helping Iran build a nuclear reactor.

In a basement apartment off a Tehran side street, Ramine Sadaghieh lives with his 25-year-old wife. He spends his days looking for a job. He studied computers. But now he'd take anything with a steady paycheck.

Costs rise - but rarely fall - on fluctuations in the rial's value against the dollar. A pound of chicken has doubled in price since May to the equivalent of 62 cents - the daily wage for some workers.

"Even if we wanted to emigrate we can't," he complained. "We don't even have the money for a ticket."

The superficial prosperity of Tehran frustrates him even more. Shops are filled with items that he - and many Iranians - couldn't dream of buying. Swatch watches and Adidas athletic shoes are highly coveted, and cellular phones are a status symbol.

"Our expectations have gotten so high," admitted Sadaghieh, 29. "We measure ourselves now by what we own. I'm no different. This is the new Iran."

He manages to keep a 23-year-old domestic-made Paykan car running. Since 1992, Iran has banned all auto imports to boost the boxy Paykan, which is modeled on the British-made Hillman Hunter of the 1970s.

The little cars share the road with many U.S.-made cars from before the 1979 revolution. The appetites of the old Cadillacs and Lincolns are satisfied by some of the cheapest fuel in the world: about 12 cents a gallon.

A drive - or rather crawl - through Tehran's traffic-clogged streets reveals a keen, almost comical, desire to join the world mainstream. A strange homage is paid to America through fast-food fakes: Pizza Ehute, Kabooky Fried Chicken and mockups of McDonald's golden arches.

At a major plaza, a giant mural of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stares out past a billboard for Cacol, a candy that features an exact copy of Coca-Cola's famous logo.

"The reformers are trying to find a new face for Islam," said Houshang Golshiri, one of Iran's leading writers. "Twenty years ago, when the clerics said, 'Go to your rooftops and shout 'Allah Akbar' (God is Great),' everyone was doing it. Not now."

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