Monday, June 22, 1992

A Teheran Spring

The New Yorker
By Robin Wright
June 22 1992

THE dusty highway south from Teheran runs through barren countryside, until, some fifteen kilometres from the city's edge, an enormous gold dome looms on the horizon. Even in the spring, the heat rising off the surrounding desert makes it shiver like a mirage. Two spiny minarets quiver rhythmically alongside it. The route is among the most heavily travelled in Iran; Teheranis say that everyone has to make the trip at least once. The road leads to Behesht-e Zahra, or "Zahra's Paradise," the Muslim cemetery. The last time I took it, in the summer of 1988, the way was clogged with funeral processions -- busload after busload of families journeying to bury the latest "martyrs" in the costly eight-year war with Iraq. This April, however, traffic was light. The only splashes of color on the bleak road to the gold dome were small batches of the year's first flowers, sold along the roadside by young boys from Teheran's poor south¬ern suburbs, and green road signs, in Farsi and English, directing visitors to "Imam Khomeini's Holy Tomb."

Built by Iran's ruling mullahs after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death, in June of 1989, the tomb is the largest and most ornate shrine to a Shiite leader anywhere in the world, and one of the largest to any Muslim leader since the faith was founded, in the seventh century. Disgruntled Iranians complain that its cost was greater than the annual budget of Teheran, a city of almost thirteen million people. De¬vout Iranians, however, boast that it is finer than either the Grand Mosque in Mecca or the Prophet Muhammad's tomb in Medina —Islam's holiest sites. Their message is implicit.

The entrance to the tomb is across a vast plaza, complete with a reflecting pool and taps at which the faithful dutifully wash before praying. Inside the entrance are two rooms, lined to the ceiling with gray cubbyholes, where visitors check their shoes. The main room, a vast space lined with pillars and lit by several chandeliers, is indeed magnificent. The floor and walls are polished marble, which reflects the sparkling light of the chandeliers and gives the interior an airy feeling. Persian carpets--of handwoven silks in richly textured designs from various Iranian provinces —adorn the floor. In the center, beneath the gold dome, is a cagelike glass-and-silvery-metal chamber, canopied in green, the color of Islam. Inside, the Ayatollah lies beneath a marble slab, which is also covered by a green cloth. The metal was used in part to prevent the large crowds that once assembled here from breaking through to the Imam; the faithful still shudder at the memory of the chaos at his funeral, when the shrouded body was uncovered and tossed around by mourners vying for a last look or touch. On each of the chamber's four sides, at eye level, is a slit through which to pass money. On the day I was there, rial notes were piled at least two feet high around the edges of the chamber. Stained-glass windows at the base of the gold dome depict giant red tulips with green leaves—in Iran, the red tulip is the symbol of martyrdom—incongru¬ously fashioned in the simple modernis¬tic style of New York City's Big Apple.

For all its splendor, the tomb is a place of unusual informality, and non-Muslims and foreigners are welcome. Out of either reverence or curiosity, almost everyone who enters heads immediately for Khomeini's chamber. As I peered inside it, a small middle-aged woman next to me wept softly, reciting a prayer and touching the metal with rough, henna-stained hands. Then, having paid her respects, she walked over to join a group having a picnic lunch. Throughout the tomb's cavernous interior, groups were spread out on the carpets, eating or chatting, while children played tag or raced to slide across the marble floor in their stocking feet; two boys were kicking around a small soccer ball. Families lined up to have their pictures taken against the backdrop of the burial chamber. Several loners—mainly, but not exclusively, men—were curled up against a wall, napping. The casualness does not indicate a lack of rever¬ence: death and mourning are cel¬ebrated among devout Shiite 'Muslims as a part of life. On my earlier visit to the cemetery, I had witnessed simi¬lar scenes at the graves of war martyrs and of ordinary Iranians in adjacent fields. Still, the informality was a con¬trast to the desperate throes of grief displayed three years ago, at the time of the Imam's death.

Outside, the atmosphere was almost festive. A row of outdoor cafes on the plaza offered an assortment of sweet delicacies. Across the plaza, souvenir kiosks sold T-shirts, beach towels, posters of Khomeini and other prominent mullahs, and cassette tapes—in Farsi, English, French, German, and Arabic--of the Ayatollah's last will and testament. Like the crumpled rials inside the burial chamber, the proceeds will be used to expand the complex. The government plans to construct a university for Islamic studies, a semi¬nary, hotels for pilgrims, and a shopping mall across some five thousand acres, at a projected cost of at least two and a half billion dollars. The tomb will eventually become the center of a suburb, with its own metro stop.
For a weekend afternoon, the tomb was lightly populated—roughly two hundred people in a place that could clearly hold thousands. The count went up when a class of pre-teen girls, just old enough to don the required head scarf and body covering of Islamic modesty, filed in with their teachers. Another hundred or so people were outside on the plaza. The tea-men at one of the cafes told me that the tomb was still swamped with visitors on holidays and revolutionary anniversaries, and during various pilgrimages. "Too many," one said proudly. But a young Iranian woman, overhearing our conversation, took me aside and said, in a hushed voice, "Believe me, the revolution is like this shrine. It's a luxury. And people in this country don't have time for luxuries anymore."

I visited Khomeini's resting place on the eve of Iran's pivotal election for the Majlis, its unicameral parliament – the fourth parliament since the country’s 1979 revolution. Parliamentary elections in Iran differ significantly from those in other parts of the world; in the Middle East, they are unique. All citizens fifteen years of age and older, including women, are eligible to vote. Fifty-six women—a record number—were among the candidates. This year's campaign lasted a mere eight days. In part because of the high number of candidates—more than two thousand ran for the parliament's two hundred and seventy seats—none were allowed to buy advertising on televi¬sion or radio. Posters for individual candidates were limited to a size slightly larger than a piece of legal paper. The standard format was a picture (all the female candidates wore the black chador, and thus looked alike) with a few lines about the candidate's educational and professional background, followed by endorsements from religious or cul¬tural groups. Campaigning was strictly on the issues; Teheran's public prosecutor sternly warned the press against writing about the candidates' personal lives.

As has become the norm since 1979, most campaigning was conducted at mosques or other Islamic gathering places; the candidates sat on the floor with their constituents, presented their platforms, and then answered questions. The religious minorities—Jews, Armenian Christians, Assyrian and Chal¬dean Christians, and Zoroastrians, whose faith prevailed in Iran before Islam---are represented proportionately in the Majlis, and their candidates campaigned at synagogues, churches, and temples. (The Baha'i, who broke away. from Shiite Islam in the nine¬teenth century and are persecuted as heretics, are the only minority ex¬cluded from Majlis representation; at least two hundred Baha'i have been executed since 1979, most of them in the revolution's early years.)

But this spring's election —the first since the war's end, in August of 1988, and the death of the Ayatollah---was unlike any earlier contest. Since the mid¬nineteen-eighties, the ruling mullahs have been increasingly divided over the future of the revolution. The rift briefly became visible to the outside world during the disastrous 1985-86 arms-for-hostages swap with the United States, when one group of clerics dealt secretly with the Great Satan and the other exposed them. By 1987, the in-house squabbling had grown so serious that the Ayatollah finally agreed to dissolve the Islamic Republic Party, under whose banner the mullahs had united to purge their leftist and centrist partners in the revolution and to con¬solidate power in the world's only modern theocracy.

Until his death, Khomeini served as a balance between the two camps, reining in whichever side went too far, and always counselling unity; after he died, the division became a fact of life, though not of official debate. The Ira¬nian government still deplores the terms "factions," "hard-liners," and "moderates," and officials regularly denounce them as "arrogant" and "spiteful" foreign propaganda, as if by denying the words they could deny the differences. "The preferred term for the factions is "tendencies," but they are effectively the embryos of new parties. In one of many signals that this year marks a turning point for Iran, both sides formally came out into the open for the Majlis election.

The split was visible even at Kho¬meini's tomb. On a pole in front of the complex, the Association of Combatant Clerics, or Majmae Ruhaniyoun-e Mobarez, had posted a large roster of its Teheran candidates, neatly written out in red, green, and white, the colors of the revolution and its flag. The Ruhaniyoun, as it is usually referred to, is made up of the hard-line mullahs and their supporters, who believe they most closely adhere to "the Imam's line." It includes many of the revolution's most controversial figures, among them Hojatoleslam Sadeq Khal¬khali, nicknamed "the hanging judge," for the death sentences he imposed after summary trials in the revolu¬tion's early years; Mohammad Ibrahim Asgharaadeh, the spokesman for the students who held the fifty-two American hostages between 1979 and 1981; Hojatoleslam Mohammad Musavi Khoeiniha, the mullah who blessed the United States Embassy takeover; and Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mobtashami, the former Interior Minister and Ambassador to Syria. "The hardliners look to the past for ideas to use as the framework for modernization," an Iranian journalist told me. The Ruhaniyoun advertised at the tomb because its main constituency is the mostazafin, or "down¬trodden"—the poor and traditionally pious, many of whom live in the crowded suburbs closest to the tomb and still take the time to visit it.

With typical and confusing Iranian subtlety, the other "tendency" is called the Society of Radical Clergy, or Jameye Ruhaniyat-e Moharez. The society, however, is anything but radical. Its platform calls for measures to open up economic and foreign policy, including privatization, foreign investment, and stronger diplomatic ties with the out¬side world. Although President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is not offi¬cially allied with either group, the Ruhaniyat essentially backs him, and its agenda is built around his reformist five-year plan. "The Ruhaniyat is look¬ing more toward the future," the Ira¬nian journalist said. "It's trying to establish a state that is viable in a modern, interdependent world --even if this sometimes comes at the cost of the revolution." The Ruhaniyat is by no means abandoning Islam as the idiom of Iranian politics, nor is it any less reverent toward the Imam; many of its leading members were his students. But its ultimate goals are comparable, in an Iranian context, with the overhauls in Eastern Europe since the demise of Communism. I saw no Ruhaniyat campaign poster at Kho¬meini's tomb.

Although both sides would vehemently deny it, the core issue in Ira¬nian politics is really whether the post-Khomeini leadership should move beyond Khomeiniism. The shift would not mean abandoning the past or rejecting the Imam. "Iranians followed Khomeini not just for religious reasons," a Western diplomat who has long served in Teheran said to me. "Most of his support was based on nationalist feelings. He made it pos¬sible for Iranians to find, to retrieve, their identity. And he gave control of Iran back to the Iranians - something they haven't had for much of this century, because of the British and the Russians, and then the Americans. For that, he is still revered." But the shift would mean serious revisions, even reversals, in the revolu¬tion's future course, with a heavier emphasis on pragmatism than on piety. The sense of transition in Teheran, however, is the product of more than just the
Imam's passing; the domes tic debate over change isn't happening in isolation. Although Iran still has no formal peace treaty with Iraq, Operation Desert Storm provided at least a 'temporary' reprieve on its hostile western border and some friendlier faces among the Gulf Arabs who had sided with Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War. Relations with Saudi Arabia, broken off a year before Khomeini's death, were restored last year. Communism—more of an anathema than capitalism, because of its atheistic premise—is no longer a threat. The Russians are not even on Iran's north ern border anymore; the whole region has been reconfigured by the transfor mation of the former Soviet Central Asian republics—all predominantly Islamic—into independent states. And to the east the last vestiges of Afghanistan's Communist leadership have succumbed to the Mujahedin, ending a war that began the same year as Iran's revolution. Khomeini died just four months before the first cracks in the Berlin Wall marked the onset of a change in the global geostrategic balance. In the minds of many Iranians, his life is in creasingly associated with a bygone era.

Although Khomeini's picture is still omnipresent----in government offices,
shops, airports, and many homes—the huge paintings of the Imam on the sides of Teheran buildings were, sym bolically, fading fast this spring. Many of the graffiti quoting his public utter ances had become unintelligible; some had been removed as part of a cleanup campaign by Teheran's zealous new mayor. In the heart of the capital I could find only a single new tribute. Painted nearly the full height of a ten-story building, it pictured Khomeini against a blue backdrop, as if Heaven-bound, with the inscription "Dear Khomeini, We will never put down the flag that you have raised."

I asked the diplomat, who over the years has come to know virtually all the Islamic Republic's main players and a wide cross-section of the Iranian people, how prominent—on a scale of one to a hundred —the Imam was in the public consciousness three years after his death.

He thought for a moment. "I suppose Khomeini now comes only somewhere in the middle," he replied.

The Iranian journalist put it another way: "We have a Persian saying, `What goes out of your eyes also gradually leaves your heart.'"

The passions among Khomeini's flag-bearers ran deep during the spring campaign. On the first night of electioneering, I caught up with Abol¬qasem Sarhadizadeh, a Ruhaniyoun candidate, who was making a cam¬paign appearance at a mosque in Naziabad, one of Teheran's southern suburbs of old brick and cinder-block houses sun-bleached to a raw colorlessness. Sarhadizadeh became promi¬nent as a militant when he was the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, between 1984 and 1990. A tall, gaunt figure, he was dressed that evening in Army fatigue trousers and a black suit jacket; after he took off his shoes to enter the mosque, I saw that his socks were threadbare. He looked much older than his forty-four years: a stubble of beard was more gray than black, and his face was deeply lined. Sarhadizadeh's election poster noted that he was a high-school graduate. After the revo¬lution, he worked with the Revolu¬tionary Guards and eventually rose to head the council supervising Iran's prison system. As was true of many of the first generation of revolutionary officials, his main qualification for public office was time served in the Shah's jails—in his case, fourteen years. "I struggled for an Islamic government," he explained to me, as if no other credential mattered.

Sarhadizadeh sees himself as an advocate of "barefoot Islam"--a phrase Khomeini coined to describe the rev¬olution's devotion to the mostazafin, who suffered the most during the monarchy. “I support the workers in this country and all the programs to help them," he told me as we sat on one of the mosque's worn red carpets. "As Labor Minister, I introduced a new law to change unreasonable dis¬missals and to improve wages and health care." The Ruhaniyoun urges the harnessing of local manpower—in a country where the unemployment rate is at least twenty-five per cent—to accelerate development and postwar reconstruction, instead of relying on loans and foreign investment. One of the theocracy's proudest achievements—and a symbol of the country's post¬revolutionary independence—was pay¬ing off almost the entire foreign debt, of more than seven billion dollars, accumulated during the Shah's rule. But under Rafsanjani's five-year plan the Islamic Republic would again be¬come a debtor nation. Teheran has already borrowed seven billion dollars, and the plan calls for a total of twenty-seven billion dollars in foreign loans and credits, which, for the Ruhaniyoun, carries the threat of a renewed depen¬dence on outsiders.

"The opposition supports open doors in economic and foreign policy," Sar¬hadizadeh told me. "But most poor countries that use the open-door policy—like Bangladesh, and all the countries of Latin America—only get poorer. In foreign policy, I think we should con¬tinue to go on our own path. We shouldn't open our doors to foreign investment." He pointedly added, "I don't like American capitalism." In fact, Sarhadizadeh doesn't like America, period. lie was reported to be among the members of the Ruhaniyoun who advocated siding with Iraq, Iran's longtime enemy, against the United States during Operation Desert Storm. Many in the Ruhaniyoun also called for recognition of last summer's coup in Moscow. Xenophobia still runs deep among the hard-core revolutionaries, and "Neither East nor West" remains the basis of their foreign policy. The interview ended when the crowd began a chant from the Koran to open the campaign session. As I left, I counted about eighty people in attendance.

All across Teheran, the Ruhaniyoun candidates were running hard and an¬grily for office. In another southern suburb, Fakhreddin Hejazi, a fiery hard-liner who had called for Nuremberg- type trials of the hostages in 1980, warned against abandoning the revolution. "We are opposed to a state of laissez-faire," he told supporters gathered at the home of a war martyr. "We are opposed to trade without the Islamic government's control. If the curb on the private sector is lifted, we will have neither bread nor religion. The economy of an Islamic country must be regulated in such a way that there are neither poor nor rich people. The Imam says that the war between poverty and wealth is on, but a certain gentleman"—a none too subtle reference to President Rafsanjani—"says it is over." Negative campaigning in Iran only occasionally becomes personal, and even then the reference is usually indirect.

"The job of a member of parliament is not limited to the building of schools and motorways," Hejazi went on. "The very important point now is that the world is in an ideological deadlock. People in the Eastern bloc are disillu¬sioned by Communism as an ideology, and they are repelled by capitalism.... The West has realized, after Communism, that Islam is standing up to it. Should we therefore believe that Islam is simply a formality? Should we just say our prayers and have a comfortable life and go to Heaven? Or should our moves bear some relation to the entire world – declaring solidarity with the Myanmar Muslims, and the [Palestinian] intifada, and the youth of south Lebanon?" Exporting the revolution to other Islamic lands, both near and far, is still very much on the Ruhaniyoun agenda; several of its members were opposed to Iran's role in the release of the Western hostages in Beirut last year. In contrast, Hejazi noted with some disgust, the Ruhaniyat advocates "establishing relations with South Africa and the United States.

Both Sarhadizadelt and Hejazi were members of the last Majlis, in which the debate on Khomeiniism—though never so described—was most overt. Elected in 1988, it was the most militant of the parliaments since the revo¬lution. Khomeini had called on the faithful to elect advocates of barefoot Islam, and they did. The Imam's appeal, however, had some help from within the regime. In 1988, the election process was run by the Interior Ministry, which was then headed by Ali Akbar Mohtashami. A Khomeini protege who had joined the Imam in exile in the nineteen-sixties, Mohtashami was rewarded with the post in 1985, on his return from Damascus, where he had orchestrated the revolution's export—an assignment that ended when a book bomb blew off most of his hands. Back in Teheran, Mohtashami gained control of the candidate-registration process as well as of the actual polling. He also controlled the nationwide network of komitehs¬the neighborhood security-and-morals squads—and exercised considerable influence over provincial appointments. Tapping into his national power base, he was able to carry out the Imam's wishes almost to the letter in the last election. An Iranian political scien¬tist called his performance "a work of art."

After the Imam's death, the Islamic Republic went through a major shakeup in leadership, and the constitution was amended for the first time since 1979. The 1979 constitution had established the President as a figurehead of state, and the Prime Minister as the head of government. Amendments in July of 1989 abolished the Premiership and established the President as both head of state and head of government. After nationwide elections at the same time, Rafsanjani—the son of a wealthy pistachio farmer, and the former speaker of the Majlis – became Iran’s first executive President. Among subsequent changes were the removal of Mohtashami from the Interior Ministry and of Sarhadizadeh from the Labor Ministry. As Rafsanjani cleaned house, the Majlis became the last stronghold of Khomeini's flag-bearers; it grew even more militant after Mohtashami and Sarhadizadeli won vacated parliamen¬tary seats in 1990. In the Majlis, the Ruhaniyoun often had the last word—or, at least, enough words to filibuster approval of Rafsanjani's reforms for months.

In this spring's election, however, Rafsanjani had the last word. In the kind of masterly manipulation that has become his trademark, he engineered a new screening
process for the candidates. The twelve-man Council of Guardians, the fourth branch of Iran's government, was now empowered to determine who was quali¬fied to run, a move that effectively superseded the Interior Ministry. Al¬though the government denied it, Teheranis openly spoke of the screening process—gleefully or despondently, depending on their own "tendencies"—as the latest step in a deliberate strategy to eliminate the Ruhaniyoun as a major player.

Like virtually everyone else in the Middle East, Iranians love conspiracy theories, whether or not they bear any resemblance to reality. (Most ordinary Teheranis I have met over the years believe, to this day, that an all-powerful Central Intelligence Agency put Kho¬eini in power after the United States recognized that the Shah was no longer a viable leader. The facts--the Ameri¬can Embassy takeover, American economic sanctions, American aid to Iraq, American bombing of Iranian offshore oil platforms in 1988—do nothing to dissuade them.) In this vein, Teheranis whispered that the cunning Rafsanjani was moving to discredit, even humiliate, the Ruhani¬youn, despite his public embrace of its members as brothers and his ex¬pressions of astonishment at their complaints.

The latest speculations may be true, however, for a third of the Majlis candidates—or over a thousand of the more than three thousand who filed to run -were disqualified by the Council of Guardians. Among them were forty incumbents, some of whom had served in all three previous parliaments. To no one’s surprise, most of the diqualified incumbents belonged to the Ruhaniyoun, including Khalkhali, the hanging judge; Asgharzacleh, the spokesman at the occupied American Embassy; and two other
incumbents associated with the hostage episode. Teheran's rumor mill reported that nearly all the other notable bard-liners—among them Mohtashami—had also been barred, only to have their candidacies "recon sidered" at the last minute, after they threatened mass public strikes and a boycott of the election.

The reasons for disqualification were kept not only from the public but also, apparently, from some of the candidates. "To date, I have not even been given written notification of the rejection of my candidacy," an infuriated Khalkhali complained to the local media. "I learned from the press and radio that my name was not among those accepted.. . . The members of the Council of Guardians are not aware that by rejecting me they have, in a way, ridiculed the exhortations of the Imam.... Do the people not understand that there are hidden hands behind the scene? ... The idea behind all this—in the light of such blatant violations—was that the [Ru¬haniyoun] should not participate in the elections."

After Khalkhali's outburst, the Western diplomat remarked to me, "You have to play tricks here to survive. It was true in the Shah's era. It's true now. This is part of the Orient--part of the game. They just don't like it when it comes around full circle."

The disqualifications added consid¬erable tension to the election week and elicited some threats about the contest's outcome. "I notify our brothers at the top of government centers," Mohtashami declared. "Those who are striking us now will someday be struck by others. If we are not elected, the Western world should not believe that we will let the government of Iran spoil the heritage of the revolution."

Rafsanjani was prepared to risk the Ruhaniyoun's wrath because his concerns extended well beyond the election. Since Khomeini's death, the unique "government of God" the Imam created has become vulnerable. Heavily influenced by Plato's Republic, which he studied as a young theologian, Khomeini combined the concept of a philosopher king with the Shiite belief in the clergy’s authority to interpret God’s will for the faithful. The result was a new political structure, built around a Valiyat-e Faqih, or Supreme Jurisprudent. As Faqih, Khomeini was outside the daily government, yet when he chose, or other asked, he exercised the ultimate executive, legislative, and judicial authority. The Faqih is the only position for which there is no term length or limitation in Iran’s constitution.

The system had legitimacy as long as Khomeini was alive. He had the credentials and the public following to be a Faqih. But Iran’s theocracy has never had the full support of its clergy; the Shiite grand ayatollahs all disagreed with the Faqih concept. And Khomeini’s designated heir, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, was dismissed in March of 1989, for disagreeing with the Imam on a host of issues. Over tea, a political scientist in Teheran who has often been my guide through the labyrinth of Iranian politics explained the regime’s dilemma to me. “The government’s very legitimacy is based on its supreme religious authority,” he said. “The problem for the mullahs is that Khomeini is a hard man to replace. As they discovered, it’s virtually impossible. After the Imam died, there was no one of sufficient rank to succeed him who believed in the idea of Faqih. In the end, the Assembly of Experts had to turn to a hojatoleslam and hastily elevate him to ayatollah. Now the whole system is vulnerable.

The new Faqih is Ali Khameini, Rafsanjani’s predecessor as President. His former title of hojatoleslams – which is also Rafsanjani’s title – means “authority on Islam,” and Iran’s mosques and seminaries boast thousands of hojatoleslams; ayatollah, the next and highest rank, means “sign of God.” "We went through the rote of 'The Faqih is dead. Long live the Faqih,' " the political scientist continued. "But it wasn't the same. Khomeini could call for people to become martyrs in a long war, and a lot of them would go to their deaths smiling. Khamenei can't. Khomeini could say that economic times are difficult and we all have to sacrifice for the cause, and people would listen. Khamenei doesn't have that kind of power. That doesn't mean he isn't a good or respected mullah. Iranians listen to what he says, but they don't listen in the way. You don’t hear people calling him ‘Imam.’ I don’t think anyone would even consider it. Some people have even started turning to other religious leaders."

To prevent the erosion of the regime's legitimacy, Rafsanjani has been methodically working to fashion a durable Islamic state as the basis of authority and to make its survival less dependent on the standing of the Faqih. The creation of an executive Presidency was only the first step. With charm and personal attention, he has also expanded the regime's constitu¬ency beyond the hard-core Islamists, who now constitute less than ten per cent of the electorate. Many middle-and upper-class Teheranis who felt repressed by the revolution's social restrictions and infuriated by some of its tactics told me this spring that they supported Rafsanjani's efforts; no al¬ternative attracted them. Jews and Christians in Teheran told me they believed that Rafsanjani genuinely cared about the religious minorities and that they would be safe under his rule. Words of approval came even from a taxi-driver who had named his two young sons Mohammad and Reza, after the last Shah. "I don't like any of them," he grumbled. "But Rafsanjani's the best of a bad lot. Sometimes I forget that he's a mullah."

Also fundamental to the process is the elimination of revolutionary purists, who oppose any deviation from the strictest interpretation of the Imam's line. Several ministries have already undergone quiet leadership changes. The new Finance Minister earned his doctorate in economics at the University of California at Davis; the new Central Bank director studied economics at the New School for Social Research, in New York, and at the University of California at Los Angeles. To replace hard-liners in the parliament, the Ruhaniyat introduced a host of tech¬nocrats and new faces. High on the list of Majlis candidates was Mohammad Javad Larijani, a Berkeley-educated former Deputy Foreign Minister.

On the opening night of the cam¬paign, after talking with Sarhadizadeh, I went to see Larijani at a mosque in southern Teheran. Bearded and bespectacled, Larijani is an affable fellow, with a wry sense of humor. After leaving the Foreign Ministry, where I last interviewed him, he had gone back to teaching at Teheran’s Institute of Applied Mathematics, and training new diplomats. Larijani was sitting on the floor of the mosque taking written questions when I arrived. I was in time to hear him answer a query about the disqualified candidates. "I have no special position," he said, with diplo¬matic aplomb. "These candidates will probably be employed in other sectors of government in the future." Indeed, there were reports that the regime would not cast the disqualified candidates totally adrift, in part to prevent them from more open opposition or from going underground.

After the session, Larijani stayed to chat. "The type of question indicates the depth of political thinking among the people," he told me. "They are not naive. It also shows the maturity of the revolution—that the system is work¬ing. There's no need for a coup d'etat." I was surprised at his candid allusion to the potential election backlash. He also said that the election would be a watershed, explaining, "It will con¬solidate the power of the President. Now he'll have the majority backing him up."

George Bush might be envious, I said. He smiled. I asked him about charges that the Ruhaniyat was aban¬doning barefoot Islam.

"We've begun liberalization, opening a free market, boosting production," he replied. "But that doesn't mean we've forgotten the needy in society. Which way is better to help them—to put them on welfare or to boost the economy? The welfare system is not an answer. It brings only minor and transient results."
I asked Larijani if anyone had ever called him a Republican.

He smiled again. "At least, I'm not a hawkish Republican," he said.

THE Teheran Stock Exchange opened in 1966, as one of the monarchy's economic reforms. After the revolution, almost half the hundred and five companies listed on the ex¬change were nationalized, and it sank into disuse. Now, however, the ex¬change is one of the prime vehicles for the privatization of state companies, and a centerpiece of the theocracy's reform program. One morning, I visited its headquarters, in a drab office block on Saadi Avenue, a main artery in the capital's business district. "You've come a bit too early," a manager's assistant said as we began a tour of the facility. "The real activity usually takes place in the last hour of trading before we close at noon. It also may be a little slow today, because people are waiting to see what will happen with the elections."

By the standards of other world markets, the floor of the exchange could best be described as orderly. There were no bells, no shouting, no crowds; activity was limited to a low, polite murmur. Thirty-four brokers, all of them men, were registered to trade; most were sitting behind brass nameplates around long black wooden tables arranged in a rectangle; custom¬ers came to counters behind them to buy and sell. All transactions were written out by hand. On the mezza¬nine overlooking the floor, sharehold¬ers could monitor the trading—also handwritten, on big blackboards that hung from the balcony—if they could see around the potted palms, the exchange's principal decorating motif.

"You should buy some shares," the assistant said to me as we watched the trading. "You know, this is the one stock market in the world where val¬ues only go up."

I asked if foreigners were allowed to trade on the exchange.
"Of course," he said, looking at me with a puzzled expression. "Haven't you read about our new foreign investment?"

One of the cornerstones of Iran's 1979 constitution was Article 81, which stipulated, "Granting concessions to foreigners for establishing corporations and firms dealing with commercial, industrial, agricultural, mineral affairs, and services is absolutely prohibited." The revolutionaries were determined to prevent foreign profiteering and exploitation of Iran's assets. But among the economic reforms after Khomeini's death was a new investment law. Resurrected from the monarchy and then revised, it allowed foreigners to control forty-nine per cent of joint business ventures with Iran; it also allowed them to take their share of the profits out of the country. Passage of the law had broadly altered public attitudes toward the role of foreigners in the Islamic Republic.

In view of the enthusiasm of his sales pitch, I asked the assistant whether he had bought any shares.

"I didn't want to," he replied, grinning sheepishly. "But my wife insisted."
After the tour, I visited Allah Verdi Rajaee-Salmassi (the first two names mean "given by God"), the exchange's secretary-general, in his office, off the mezzanine. Seated at a desk under a large photograph of Khomeini, he was cheerfully optimistic about the future of the exchange. "The stock market is the symbol of change in Iran," he told me. "We now have more companies listed than before the revolution. We're up to a hundred and twenty-nine, and over the next two years we'll reach three hundred and ninety. Between ten and fifteen percent of all the companies in Iran will join the ex¬change." The percentage would he so low, he explained, in large part be¬cause the government would retain control of strategic industries and oil; the petroleum industry was national¬ized in 1951, and it accounts for the biggest share of Iran's businesses.

I asked Rajaee-Salmassi if it was true that the stocks on the Teheran exchange never went down.

He laughed. "It's not forbidden for them to go down, but the vast majority do go up," he replied. Indeed, the value of the stocks sold in the first six months of 1991 was more than double that in all of 1990 and fifteen times that in all of 1989. "We started up the exchange again only after the government initiated the privatization pro¬gram under its new five-year plan, and our goals are still modest," he said. "We were originally modelled on the Belgian stock exchange. Someday, maybe in another five years, we hope to be a middle-level market, maybe like Johannesburg."

In May, the exchange went high-tech when it moved to new premises. The chrome-glass-and-marble offices, on Hafez Avenue, are furnished with locally made furniture—one of Iran's new boom industries—and I.B.M. computers, bought in Holland. (The ex¬change's index is in English, since no software package has yet been trans¬lated into Farsi.) Soon, the exchange is planning to admit its first female broker.

Shortly before my visit, the exchange had overcome a major hurdle on the road to full acceptance. As one of the directors showed me through the new premises, he told me jubilantly, "About three months ago, we invited the mullahs to see the exchange, and twelve came to check it out. Then they went to Ayatollah Meshkini"— the head of the Assembly of Experts, which elects the Faqih --"and explained it to him. He said it was O.K., and the mullahs came hack and told us that there was no religious conflict. We know it's true, because then they bought some shares!"

In the light of Iran's recent past, some of the government's other innovations are equally striking. After the American hostages were seized, in 1979, Iran scoffed at international economic sanctions. Now it is working with the International Monetary Fund, and on the I.M.F’s advice has sharply reduced the national deficit, from fifty per cent of the budget in 1988 to just over ten per cent in 1991--a feat achieved, some say, with the help of accounting sleight of hand. During Iran's first revolutionary decade, the government had heavily subsidized basic commodities to help the mostazafin. Now the mullahs have introduced an Iranian version of shock therapy, to galvanize the stagnant economy and make it more competitive internation¬ally. Subsidies for meat, chicken, sugar, and a host of other basic foodstuffs have been reduced, and the currency, which was artificially pegged through¬out the eighties at sixty-seven rials to the dollar, is floating at various rates, up to fourteen hundred rials to the dollar, The old isolation has been replaced by three free-trade zones-- two islands in the Persian Gulf and the port of Chahbar, on the Gulf of Oman—offering tax and customs exemptions to encourage foreign invest¬ment and trade.

Change is reshaping and redefining Teheran. At what had been abandoned building sites, I saw swarms of workers erecting new housing projects, private homes, government facilities, office blocks, and shopping malls. On the capital's motorways, I noticed sporty new Jaguars, Mitsubishi sedans, lots of Nissan four-wheel-drive jeeps, and even one or two 1992 Caprices—all highly conspicuous next to the small, boxy Iranian-made Paykans. Almost daily, the government announced a new trade deal or diplomatic tie: Iran Air added Kenya to its international routes (it now flies to more than twenty countries); a commercial pact to sell oil to Ukraine was concluded; new envoys to Mongolia presented their creden¬tials; and plans were announced for the construction of a railway linking Iran and the former Soviet Central Asian republics – a project that could make Teheran a transportation hub in the region. Billboard space that had for years extolled the revolution or con¬demned the Greater and Lesser Satans was now advertising Dole fruits and Japanese electronics. Banners at Te¬heran's Great Bazaar announced, in English, a coming "I nternational Exhibition of Finest Persian Carpets," and local newspapers advised American and European buyers where to go to pick up visas. Lotteries, which, like casinos, had been banned after the revolution, were coming hack. Banks this spring were conducting a nation¬wide sweepstakes: anyone who made a new deposit of twenty thousand rials was eligible. New cars would go to the twenty winners; losers would get their money back, but without "dividends"— the term that Islamic banks use to avoid the prohibition on usury.

Even the revolution's Islamic essence is mellowing. At Teheran's City Theatre, I attended a rehearsal of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," which included a drinking scene. Recent movies made in Iran feature love stories and other non-Islamic themes; a couple of films about the war with Iraq have plots with endings far short of total victory. Even Islamic fashion has become an industry. To replace the drab black cotton roupoosh—a kind of housecoat that is an alternative to the all-enveloping chador—that I had worn on several previous trips, I bought a double-breasted roupoosh of black crepe, with shoulder pads, epaulets, and raglan sleeves. I purchased it from an Iranian woman, who told me that she was glad to sell it. "That model's at least a year old," she said. I saw several women riding on the backs of motorcycles, their roupooshes occasion¬ally flapping illicitly in the wind, and among the devout, who still wear the chador, I noticed a preference for Ree¬boks and other brand-name sneakers.

Many of the most vivid images of my previous trip had disappeared. The sandbags and crisscrossed tape put up to protect shop fronts and the windows of homes and office buildings were gone. The only troops I saw, from any military branch, were a few Revolutionary Guards posted at Khomeini's tomb and outside his house, in Jamaran, one of Teheran's wealthy northern suburbs. The endless run of TV documentaries on the valiant war effort had been replaced by Western films and television series. One of my colleagues remarked on how odd it was to hear a Mississippi riverboat captain speaking Farsi.)

The sole visible trace of the war was at Behesht-e Zahra, where I encountered mothers and widows making weekend trips to tend their men's graves.
In many ways, the Iranian capital is cleaner and more orderly than it has been at any time since the revolution. Since 1991, when the draconian komitehs were merged with the police force, the random roadblocks to check for illegal alcohol consumption or unmarried couples have disappeared. Gardens have been planted along the boulevards, anti the powerful fragrance of violet, red, and white shaboo¬hyacinth-like flowers whose name means "night smell" often manages to cut through the city's air pollution. Drab, ill-tended parks have been re¬vitalized with swings, slides, rocking horses, and sometimes small Ferris wheels and giant climbing toys, like a "Mother Goose" shoe. Sections of the sprawling capital have been color-coded: all the corrugated-metal doors and trim in one district were bright yellow, in another pale blue. Rocky stretches along the highways in the north and on the desert border in the south have been planted with saplings. Most of the political graffiti on the sides of build¬ings have been replaced with picturesque murals in bright colors, each bearing the slogan "Our City Is Our House."

The most extraordinary innovation, however, may well be Iran's heavily funded birth-control program, which ranks as one of the most successful in the Third World. Throughout the revolution's early years, and especially during the war, the leadership called on the faithful to breed a new Islamic generation. The population not only soared but almost doubled. From 1976 to 1986, the population growth rate rose from 2.7 per cent to 3.9 per cent—one of the highest in the world. Then the mullahs reversed course. An Iranian importer of pharmaceuticals explained the change to me. "It was a simple matter of arithmethic," he said. "The year before the revolution, the population was thirty-four million, and income from oil was about twenty billion dollars. Today, the population is almost sixty million, and income from oil is only sixteen billion to eighteen billion dollars. The government finally began to understand that there were not enough pieces of the pie for all the people we were breeding." The Health Ministry launched a nation¬wide campaign, and a prominent aya¬tollah issued a fa two, or religious edict, advocating family planning. But the program languished, in part because the Prime Minister, a supporter of the nascent Ruhaniyoun, didn't back it. His post was eliminated in the 1989 government shakeup.

Dr. Mohsen Naghavi, a tall, slen¬der general practitioner with a neat mustache, took me on a tour of the Badr Health Clinic, a pristine two-story facility in southern Teheran. "Sev¬enty per cent of Iranian women now use contraceptives," he told me. "The pill, I.U.D.s, condoms, tubal ligations, vasectomies—everything is free. We don't teach rhythm, because it's not sure enough." The Badr Clinic's motto is "Fewer children, better life." To promote birth control, it last year be¬gan mobilizing a corps of women volun¬teers to go house-to-house in poor neighborhoods, where families tend to have the most children.

"We try to teach them, not preach to them," Dr. Naghavi told me. "We say that birth control is not mandatory. But we try to show them, in different ways, the importance of limiting popu¬lation growth. We explain that it's better to have one healthy, educated Muslim than a hundred unhealthy, uneducated Muslims. Then we explain the possible harm of having a baby before the age of fifteen and after the age of thirty-five, and that it's better for the health of the baby and the mother to have a gap of three years between children. We also explain the economics. We have to import food and be dependent on other countries. And we also talk about defense. We explain that Iran is in a geostrategic zone. The country must pay a lot of money for defense, because of super¬powers like the United States, who look at us with interest. We need a large military. But the larger the population, the more we have to spend on babies instead of on defense." According to Dr. Naghavi, the results of the birth-control program have surpassed the government's early projections, but he conceded that Iran still has a long way to go. "It took fifteen years, in the United States, to persuade people not to eat fats and oily foods," he said. "How can anyone expect us to solve this problem in a short time?” Nevertheless, in mid-April the Minister of Health made the astonishing claim that the population growth rate had been brought back down to 2.7 per cent; the new target is 2.3 per cent by the end of the century.

With Dr. Naghavi and two female doctors, I visited a class of the volunteers, who come to the clinic for weekly updates and to compare notes. The women, who were all dressed in either chadors or roupooshes, talked freely to me about their work: the initial hurdles, the problems of persuading men to limit family growth, their own early reluctance to practice birth control, the impact of the program on general family health care, and, not least, the new opportunities that birth control provided women for bettering their own lives. I could sense the beginnings of a women's-liberation movement in the room. One middle-aged woman told me, "This offers us a chance to partici¬pate in society, to get out of our houses, and to improve our personalities."

FOR all the changes in Iran, however, this spring few Teheranis were revelling in profit-taking, or enjoying the hope of the new season. A couple of days before the Majlis election, I joined a line of women and restless children outside the Qods Department Store, on Vali-e Asr Avenue, a tree-lined boulevard that cuts through the capital from the Elbourz foothills in the north to the edge of the southern desert. The line stretched around the corner and well down a side street; several of the women com¬plained that they had been waiting for up to four hours. They had all come to Qods to buy chicken; since the reduction of government subsidies, the price of chicken has increased at least twelve hundred per cent, but because the store is subsidized by a national charity the price was almost a thousand rials less than at free-market stores. After the wait, however, each customer could take away only two frozen chickens, in small packages with pink labels, imported from Bulgaria.

"I can't afford twenty-three hundred rials for chicken," a middle-aged widow named Esmat said when I asked people why they were waiting. "Beef, lamb, chicken, eggs --every¬thing has doubled over the last month. And that's on top of the increases the month before. But our salaries are fixed. So, either you wait in line at places like this or you eat less." A small crowd formed around me as other shoppers reeled off complaints about the price hikes.

I asked the women how they felt about the coming election. A thirty¬nine-year-old mother of two told me that she didn't plan to vote. "The election has no influence in my life," she said. "It won't make any difference." A teacher next to her chimed in, rather loudly, "They are lying to the people, so why should we go vote for them?" When I asked if she wasn't worried that someone might hear her, she responded, again loudly, "I don't care anymore. In fact, I wish they'd listen to what we have to say more often." A third woman made her way through the crowd to tell me, "We've waited thirteen years for something to happen. We expected so much, but now the revolution is failing us." She added softly, "We can't go on like this. We're tired of this life."

For more than a decade, the Qods Department Store has been one of my barometers of Iran's economic health. The last time I visited it, at the end of the war years, the shelves in the basement, where food is sold, had been pitifully bare—lots of ketchup, canned beans, and cheap plastic kitchen uten¬sils, but little of substance. This spring, I was surprised to find the basement shelves jammed with packages of pasta and rice, cream-filled pastries, colorful spices, and row after row of canned fruits and vegetables; the quantity and choice hadn't been this good since before the revolution. The upper floors, too, had a wide selection of consumer goods: clothing, from girls' frilly frocks to jeans for all ages; bright silk flowers; rouge, lipstick, and eyeshadow; and toys galore. In one corner, big black¬and-white stuffed pandas were stacked in a pyramid five feet high. I remarked on the abundance to one of the shoppers. "You don't understand," she replied, with the same irritation expressed by the women waiting in line for chicken. "Who can afford this stuff? Only the very wealthy. And I hear it's not so easy for them anymore, either."

A European envoy with long experience in Iran later remarked to me, "The kind of hardships here would cause envy in Russia and Africa. In Moscow, complaining about the price of tangerines would be a luxury." Nonetheless, the economic transition is painful. In 1991, per-capita income was estimated to be fourteen hundred dollars—less than half what it was on the eve of the revolution. This year, several economists told me, it has decreased further. As subsidies recede and prices shoot up, most civil ser¬ants, despite having received raises of as much as twenty-five per cent, find they are living below the poverty line.

Even the cost of making the hajj has gone up, and so has the amount of what is locally known as "blood money"-the compensation that drivers must pay if they kill or injure someone in a traffic accident. During election week, Iran's Supreme Judicial Council raised the price of compensation for loss of life in a traffic accident from six million to seventy million rials—almost fifty thousand dollars at the prevalent floating rate, but more than a million dollars at the old rate of sixty-seven rials, at which most people are still paid. Blood money for injuries or disability was also increased, to thirty million rials. The ruling caused a sensation in the desperately over¬crowded capital, where the traffic can best be described as rhythmic chaos. The taxi-driver who took me from Teheran's international airport to my hotel ran thirteen red lights almost as if he hadn't seen them. "DRIVE SLOWLY. SEVENTY-MILLION-RIAL MEN ARE RUSHING ABOUT IN THE STREETS," a recent headline in one of the local newspapers warned. The day after the ruling, Teheran bus drivers refused to work until they were assured that blood money would be paid by the bus company.

It was not the first Iranian economic protest. Price hikes across the board have caused hundreds of slowdowns and small strikes nationwide as work¬ers demand higher wages. Individu¬ally, these actions have been largely insignificant; collectively, they mark the beginning of a challenge potentially more serious than any political opposition. The key questions for the post-Khomeini leadership as it works toward both political and economic change are how far to move and how fast. The last Shah was forced to abandon the Peacock Throne in part because his attempts at modernization, the so-called White Revolution, imposed disruptive changes— about which ordinary Iranians had virtually no say—at an unacceptable pace. Now that the mullahs are coming to grips with many of the same modernization issues, they arc facing many of the same problems. The pace and scope of change are particularly troublesome for Rafsan¬jani, whose first four-year term expires next year. He faces reelection in July, 1993, for the second—and last—Presidential term allowed by the constitution.

When I left the department store, I stopped in at a bookstore whose proprietor is known as a thoughtful pundit on local affairs. I explained what I had just seen and heard.

"Ah, yes—don't I know," the pro¬prietor responded. "People are more depressed now than during the war. The economic situation affects us in more ways. We had expected that when the war ended things would be better, but instead they're worse. You feel it in every aspect of life. This is a society that has always loved jokes. Through most of the revolution and the war years, people still told wonder¬ful stories. In the end, we could laugh at our troubles. But I don't know how long it's been since I heard a new joke, or reheard an old one. Even parties are boring, because all that people can talk about is the economy. I'm the same way. Do you know that a set of tires now costs almost as much as you would have paid for a new car before the revolution? Chicken now is the same price as in Germany, but we're paid Third World salaries. And cars arc more expensive than in Europe."

As a result, the long-standing tradition of petty bribery has become a mainstay of the economy. "We call it oiling the mustache," the bookstore owner explained. "This morning, I had to go to a notary public to get certification that I'd paid off a loan. He told me that I didn't have the right documents, and that I had to go hack to the bank. So I did. But the bank official laughed at me and said I must be new at business, because I did have the right papers. He said the notary just wanted a bribe. By the time it was over, we did a lot of oiling. It's not an uncommon practice, but before the revolution you paid a little and you paid once. Now you have to pay a lot and to several people. Sometimes you can't blame them, because their salaries are so low. But it tells you a lot about the system."

I was indeed struck by the human hardship. On earlier visits, I had often seen men selling odds and ends on street corners, and occasionally I had seen beggars, hut this time I saw young girls brave onrushing traffic on the main thoroughfares to peddle wind¬shield wipers or chewing gum. Several of my old friends had taken second jobs, now almost a necessity among the middle and lower classes. A young teacher I met told me that she called in sick whenever she got a free-lance translation job—work that she needed in order to survive, even though she was living with her parents. A Jewish carpet dealer told me that he was very worried about his situation in Iran. I asked if he was referring to possible difficulties for Iranian Jews, some thirty thousand of whom are estimated to be living in the Islamic state. "No," he said, laughing. "This is my country, and I'm here to stay, as are most of the Jews I know. We're free to practice our faith at synagogues, in our schools, at our clubs. There are still plenty of kosher butchers, and the best health care is at the Jewish hospital. No, it's the economy that's killing me. I haven't had a sale in weeks."

After the blood-money ruling, several Teheranis I met predicted, seriously, that the poor would soon be flinging themselves into the traffic to win blood-money compensation -- preferably for injuries rather than death. Throughout the campaign, the Ruhaniyoun played to the widening social gap, calling for "vigilance" to prevent "society from being split into a well-off minority and a culturally and ma¬terially poor majority."

I asked the bookstore proprietor what all this meant for the revolution. "I don't know whether the revolu¬tion has failed" was the reply. "But it certainly hasn't succeeded yet."

DURING election week, a Mid-eastern diplomat in Teheran re called one of the post-Khomeini sig¬nals of change in Iranian foreign policy. Not long ago, he had noticed that the lights behind a large anti-American sign outside the old Hilton Hotel—now called the Esteglal, or Independence—were out. On his next visit, he noticed that the whole sign was gone. At the former American Embassy compound, now a school for Revolutionary Guards, I found a similar shift—this one among ordinary Iranians. Revolutionary slogans, including “America is Very Dangerous for Islam,” were still on the compound wall, but in the compound's guestbook some of the latest entries were markedly different from the congratulatory messages of past years. "Why?' one visitor had written. "Why in the name of the God of the poor and the powerless, why have they thanked you so much?' Another entry read, "History will judge that these students were like a dam in the way of progress." During a morning I spent talking about the impending election with four carpet merchants at the Great Bazaar, I mentioned the "Alarg bar ilmrika" ("Death to America") chants that have echoed through the revolutionary era. "Achhh," one of the bazaaris said angrily. "That saying cost us a lot. It cost us everything. We should forget it forever." But the signals were often contradictory. The former Intercontinental Hotel (now called the Tulip), where I was staying, still had "Down with U.S.A." emblazoned on a wall of the lobby. And at Friday prayer services at Te¬heran University, Iranians were still shouting "Alarg bar Jtnrikar like the "Hallelujah" chorus.

"Oh, you Americans— you're so di¬rect," an American-educated Iranian businessman said, with a laugh, when I asked him about the inconsistency. "Everything always has to be black and white. Here we're more subtle. Here everything is colored in various shades of gray. Yes, of course, every¬one's talking about relations with the United States again. It's one of the implicit issues in the election. But relations are not going to be established overnight. It will come gradually, in stages. And it won't be the same as before. Even those of us who don't like the revolution want the United States to know that we intend to keep the independence we've achieved."

To better understand Iran's foreign policy, I stopped in at the Institute for Political and International Studies, the Foreign Ministry's think tank. It is located within walking distance of the Shah's old palace, and has recently been equipped to receive CNN. One of several senior analysts I spoke with was particularly candid about Iran's strategy in the post-Khomeini era. "Among our main goals is the normalization of relations with all countries -- in the Gulf, Asia, Europe," he said.

“We are now attempting to resolve those points which we consider obstacles with Western countries. We're pursuing them in line with economic reconstruction. If the election goes as expected, these goals and policies will be pursued with less domestic resis¬tance. We should expect everything to speed up."

I asked him whether the release last year of American and British hostages in Lebanon marked a new direction in Iranian foreign policy.

"Is this era over?" he said. "This question is never going to have an answer. There's nothing that Iran can promise to the world. First, no country
should even give an answer. Israel doesn't. The United States doesn't. Every country does what is in its national interests. Besides, you should he able to tell from our attitude and our actions whether or not there's change. Second, you'd never get an honest answer even if there was one. No government anywhere is going to give a guarantee, unless, like Iraq, it's been demolished—and even Iraq didn't tell the truth. Third, if a man was honest, it would destroy his domestic political base. Do you expect the President to get up and say, 'Yes, I'm sorry. It's over'? Why push to have an answer when you know it would never help?"

I then asked about the death sentence that. Khomeini had pronounced on the British author Salman Rushdie, whom the Imam accused of blaspheming Islam in his novel "The Satanic Verses." The edict, which was proclaimed less than four months before Khomeini's death, is still in force, and its repercussions include the
murder of the book's Japanese translator and the stabbing of its Italian translator. The edict remains a major barrier to the opening of normal relations with the West. Ironically, "The Satanic Verses" is not a hot issue in Teheran. (Almost everyone I spoke to was snore angered by "Not Without My Daughter," Betty Mahmoody's book, which recounts the ordeal of an American woman, married to an Iranian, as she attempts to escape from Iran with their young daughter. Teheranis unani mously claimed that both the book and the film made from it grossly mispor trayed Iranian culture and attitudes.) "I think the Imam's fatwa is taken more seriously in Egypt," the Iranian journalist, who had recently been in Cairo, told me. “Copies of Rushdie’s book have been smuggled into Iran, but basically no one here gives a damn about Rushdie. Rafsanjani would like to resolve this issue, but it's like going against the Pope on abortion."

Indeed, most Iranians accept the fatwa as a product of domestic rather than Islamic politics. It was pronounced at a time of mounting challenges. After the war with Iraq ended, in August of 1988, economic and political tensions grew worse rather than better. By February of 1989, when Iran marked the tenth anniversary of Khomeini's return from exile, revolutionary fervor was definitely flagging. To rally public sup¬port, the mullahs have often used crises and, in some cases, even created them. The furor over "The Satanic Verses" in Muslim communities in Asia, Europe, and Africa emboldened the mullahs to use it as a diversion from frustration and malaise at home. The book also offered a pretext for correcting the pragmatic postwar course being charted by Rafsanjani. Several Iranian officials admitted to me this spring that the Ayatollah had never read Rushdie's book; its contents had instead been summarized for him. But trying to revoke the edict would be costly. "Any Iranian leader who said 'Forget the fatwa' would risk his political--even his physical—survival," a prominent European am¬bassador told me. Like all the other diplomats I met this spring, he be¬lieved that the edict was an embarrass¬ment to the current government, even though the new Faqili had on several occasions reaffirmed it.

The ambassador also told me that there had been attempts to find a way around the fatwa without appearing to defy Khomeini. "The basic idea was to get Iran to formally accept the rules of international law," he explained. "Rafsanjani said it first in a speech—although it was virtually hidden in the text." Then, he continued, in 1990 an Iranian delegation reached a compromise during talks with European Com¬munity representatives in Dublin, and agreed to sign a joint communique. "Iran said that it would respect the rules of international law, especially in the internal affairs of other countries," the ambassador continued. "By this it was understood that Teheran would not send anyone to London to kill a British citizen. That has helped Iran in its relations with the European Community. We both want to get rid of the problem. I've since been told several times by Iranian officials, 'We will never send someone to kill Rushdie.' "

I asked the ambassador if he felt that the agreement and the verbal reassurances were sufficient to remove the concern of European governments about violence stemming from the fatua. "Probably not," he replied.

The analyst at the Foreign Ministry's think tank seemed to understand that the international objections to Khomeini's edict were still very strong. He, too, mentioned the agreement with the Europeans in Dublin, and then said, "We're still working on the problem. At the moment, there's some new thinking going on. The reasoning—the new justification—is that Khomeini acted for religious reasons, and not on behalf of the state. Khomeini declared the punishment for what Rushdie did, based on existing law. I'm very bad at religious studies--but it was not a fatwa, it was a verdict. Khomeini did it apart from the government. He did it in a religious capacity, not as the head of state. If he had really wanted the government to
kill Rushdie, why would he just de clare the obvious verdict? He could have ordered a unit of Iran's Revolu tionary Guards to carry it out. I'm not trying to defend him. But he was not thinking of killing Rushdie; he was trying to make a point, to defend a principle. He saw Rushdie's book as a threat to Islam, and he wanted to defend the Islamic state and stop the trend of attacking Islam and its essence. And he was damned successful at that! But he didn't really want to kill a man. Ile had nothing against Rushdie personally. One of Rushdie's earlier books won a prize here, just six or seven months before the verdict. If we want to find the real intention of the Imam, then we must reduce the issue to reality. This is something we will have to work out--like the hostages here and in Lebanon. I don't have the solution, but we have to work on it."

I remarked that Iran's claims of foreign-policy changes had credibility problems on several counts, including the assassination in Paris last year of Shahpour Bakhtiar, who had become Iran's Prime Minister in 1979 as part of the deal to get the Shah to leave the country. Bakhtiar's government lasted only thirty-nine days, and then he fled in exile to France. The Iranian government has repeatedly claimed that it is innocent of his murder. But American and British officials told me they had evidence that the assassins were Iranian—and not Iranian hard-liners out to discredit Rafsanjani and prevent rapprochement with France. "We've traced the assassination right up to the highest levels of government," an American official told me. In Teheran, another diplomat closely familiar with the case commented, "They consider knocking off a few opposition figures to be an internal affair. They're keen not to get caught, but they haven't changed their spots."

I repeated this to the Foreign Ministry analyst, and he reflected for a inute. "When I put all the data into my mind, I can't find a single rationale—at least, in terms of what we've been trying to do for the last three years," he said. "The experience of the first ten years is behind us. We were on the verge of full, normal diplomatic and economic relations with France. Mitterrand was scheduled to visit just two months later, and that was a very important step for this government. It was a signal of the extent to which we are changing. So Mitterrand delayed his trip, which was embarrassing for us. Bakhtiar's death is more of a threat than he was in life. So who had the motive? We're not idiots sitting at this table. I can't believe that we had a role in Bakhtiar's death."

I asked him about the bombing this year at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires—an action that the Islamic Jihad, followers of the Iranian-backed Hez¬bollah in Lebanon, claimed to have carried out.

"Ah," he replied. "Hezbollah and Buenos Aires is another story. There's a motive there, and a line that follows. The bombing came right after the Israelis murdered the I lezhollah leader. Hezbollah may have had some outside help--I'm not sure that Iran would have risked it. But that group has its own capabilities—from the war in Lebanon, and from help a long time ago."

Various diplomats and Iranian officials told me that Teheran has cut back significantly on its financial aid to Hezbollah. At the same time, however, the sources said, Imad Mughniyeh, the Lebanese Shiite responsible for the abduction of Terry Anderson, Thomas Sutherland, and several other American and British hostages, has been given refuge in Teheran, with a house not far from the old Hilton and a construction job.

Finally, I asked the analyst about Iran's official intentions toward the United States, and prospects for re¬newed diplomatic ties after the election. Envoys who have acted as intermediaries between Washington and Teheran over the years have concurred that it would be a risky step for Rafsanjani, who has long been seen as sympathetic to such a move. "It's not like Nixon going to China," one of the envoys told me. Since the arms-for-hostages swap — in which Rafsanjani is believed to have played the pivotal behind-the-scenes role, though he never met Oliver North or Robert McFarlane during their secret mission to Teheran in 1986--his intentions have been suspect.

"There's already movement," the analyst responded. He told me that Iranian imports from the United States had tripled last year—though, because of American sanctions, Iran is able to sell very little to the United States. "In economic terms, we've removed the barriers for importing American goods to Iran," he said. "The Americans haven't done the same for us yet." A State Department official later con¬firmed that United States exports to Iran increased from a hundred and sixty-seven million dollars' worth in 1990 to more than five hundred and twenty-seven million dollars' worth in 1991. Trade is still a long way from the twenty-six-billion-dollar market of the Shah's era, but it's already enough to rank Washington as Teheran's sixth-largest trading partner.

"But my personal view is that some¬thing else has happened to the issue of relations over the past thirteen years," the analyst went on. "I don't think we need the United States anymore. If I were Rafsanjani's adviser and he asked me if we should open relations again, I would say that he would do it at a high cost domestically. He might say that we'll lose only five to ten per cent of support—which is negligible. It's true: it will probably not threaten the revolution to have relations with the United States. The revolution is now more established than ever. That's not too much of an issue. But then I would say, 'Why do we need the Americans now?' When Iraq was the regional power, we could have used the Americans. During the war with Iraq, we needed American spare parts for air-planes, and American missiles. When we were negotiating an end to the war, we could have used American influence. But the situation is very different now. We're rebuilding our military with help from the Russians, the East Europeans, and others. The Asians are helping us with reconstruction. Some make an argument that we need relations because the United States has a monopoly on oil equipment. But the international market is now more so¬phisticated than that. If you can get arms on the black market—or all those chemicals that Iraq got from Western companies—then you can easily get oil equipment. The only issue is the cost of intermediaries. We can get it. That's not an issue anymore.

"And even if we did have relations with the United States now, we cer¬tainly couldn't expect to get help or aid from the United States. Look at the Soviet Union. Gorbachev got nothing. How much did Eastern Europe get? Not much from the United States. There's only one surplus country, and that's Japan. And we have better relations with Japan and Europe now. That doesn't mean we shouldn't eventually open relations with Washington. But in talking about relations I have one question: Can America and Iran open relations and have them be normal? It's like a man and woman who get married and then divorce. Can they have the same level of relations afterward?"

ELECTION DAY, April 10th, was a bright spring day that in Teheran spanned the seasons—from searing heat in the arid southern suburbs to a few snowflakes and drops of cold rain in the foothills of the Elbourz, where skiers still had several feet of good powder. Elections are held on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath. It's the one day of the week when Teheran is almost tranquil and it doesn't take hours to get from one side of the capital to the other. Most of the big names voted early. Ayatollah Khamenei called on Iranians to vote as an Islamic duty. A mass turnout, he said, "would punch the mouths of idle prattlers and en¬emies of Islam and Muslims."

President Rafsanjani told a press group assembled to watch him vote, "Never in the past have there been so many differences in points of view in our society. Now the competition and opposition are intense." Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, the Majlis speaker and a leader of the Ruhaniyoun, had to wait an hour to cast his ballot; he had forgotten to bring his identity card, and an aide had to fetch it for him. Karruhi's wife was also running for the Majlis; she had been hastily nomi¬nated as a replacement for one of the disqualified Ruhaniyoun candidates. Karrubi was clearly hitter about the actions of the Council of Guardians. "It would have been better if sincere forces and those committed to the Islamic Revolution had not been barred," he told reporters.

I spent the day making the rounds of polling stations. With a friend, I went into one station, at a mosque, where men and women were voting in separate sections, and watched as my friend wrote two names on her ballot. Candidates' names had to be filled in by hand; ballots were then deposited in a sealed box. Muslim Teheranis were allowed to vote for as many as thirty of the hundred and sixty-six candidates in the capital—that is, their full quota of representation. A candidate needed to get thirty per cent of the vote to win; any seats that remained unfilled would he decided in a runoff. None of the voters I talked with, however, had voted for more than twenty-eight people, and most had voted for only a handful. The common refrain was "I don't know anything about the others."

In a country where half the adult population is illiterate, voters are per¬mitted to have help. I saw several women conferring among themselves, nodding, then sitting down together to write out their votes. 1 later heard a story about a woman with a bouffant hairdo under a loosely tied scarf who was approached at a polling station by another female voter in similar dress. "You look like someone I'd agree with," the second woman was reported to have said. "Can you help me decide whom to vote for?" Not everyone voted for candidates. Several people reported that they had written down only one name: "Allah." With great glee, an ice-cream merchant told me that he'd written down two names: "Meat" and "Chicken."

Throughout the day, voters trickled through the polling stations. The largest crowd I saw was at the Armenian cathedral, where the line of people waiting to vote curved all the way around a large courtyard. At the Jewish Sports Club, I asked the supervisor why so many Jews were voting, when the candidate for the community's single seat in the Majlis was running unopposed. Sitting under pictures of Moses, Abraham, and Khomeini, he replied, "We want a large turnout, to be able to say that our representative has strong backing from the community." All over Teheran 1 saw banners declaring "It Is the Duty of Everyone to Vote to Fight the Enemy." But the turnout appeared to me to be low – an assessment shared by other members of the foreign press and by a wide assortment of diplomats who had conducted tours of polling stations.

I spent the morning in Shahpour, poor southern suburb. One of the centers of activity there was a food bazaar; little stalls lined both sides of a central square. A dingy alley with more shops ran off to one side. In the alley, I asked an old vender, who was selling some potatoes he had piled on plastic bags on the ground, if he knew of a family that might be home.

"There's a very poor family there," he said, pointing to a large hole in the alley wall.

As I ducked through the doorway, I almost tripped over a small cross-eyed boy with a drooling grin, who was rocking back and forth on his knees. His mother introduced herself as Zohreh and invited me in. Zohreh, who is thirty, lives with her husband and six children -four boys and two girls, aged five to fifteen—in two small rooms, with no furniture except an old television set. The apartment's walls, painted bright green and blue, were decorated with tinted family photo¬graphs. The single tap, cold water only, was outside. The apartment has no heat during the hitter Teheran winters and no cooling system during the steamy summers. I asked how all eight managed to sleep there. At night, Zohreh explained, they spread eight mats across the floor; they can fit, because two of the children are still small.

Two of Zohreh's teen-age boys are severely handicapped, mentally and physically. "We tried to get them into state institutions, but they wouldn't take them, because the children have two parents," she said. As we talked, the boys, thirteen and fourteen, crawled around in the next room; one had his trousers and underpants pulled down to his knees.

I asked Zohreh how she felt about the revolution. With a certain awe, she told me that she had seen Khomeini once, shortly after his return to Iran, when he visited her suburb. But she added that her life hadn't improved since 1979. On Election Day, she was worrying about finding a new place to live. "We have to move this summer," she explained. "They're going to tear down this building and put up a new apartment block. We pay ten thousand rials for rent, and we can’t afford any more. I have no idea where we’ll go.” She said that her husband, a former construction worker, had become too frail to do heavy labor.

I asked her what he did now.

"Didn't you see him?" she asked. "He sells fruits and vegetables at the corner." The potato vender I had talked to was her husband; he looked at least seventy, but she told me that he was fifty-five.

On specific aspects of the revolution Zohreh deferred to her eldest son, fifteen-year-old Emran. Because the family has been so hard hit by the economic shock therapy, Emran, a lanky youth with the first dark hairs of a mustache above his lip, now sells vegetables along with his father. "He doesn't have enough time to study anymore," his mother said. "If lie doesn't make it, then there's no hope for the rest of us." Like his siblings, Emran does not remember the monarchy. The majority of Iran's popula¬tion is now under sixteen. Iran's baby-boom generation will, over the next two decades, become the largest bloc of voters. "The revolution has brought some good things and some bad," Emran told me, considering his words seriously. "No other country owns us anymore. But there aren't enough facilities for children to study, and there's not enough help with housing. We're going to be abandoned soon, because it's O.K. for people to make money and exploit the poor again"... a reference, apparently, to the private building boom going on throughout Teheran. "The revolution promised to take care of us," he concluded plaintively.

Indeed, despite the revolution's ini¬tial pledge to care for the inosicznfin, resentment, particularly over housing shortages, is becoming visible among the poor. The theocracy's urban-renewal programs have targeted the illegal squatter settlements ringing several of Iran's largest cities—a product of the population boom, rural migration, and the influx of refugees from border areas during the war. The country's urban population has roughly doubled since the revolution; many cities can no longer cope with the numbers. Around the time of the election, at least three cities witnessed confrontations between municipal workers assigned to raze shantytowns and the poor who lived in them. In May, riots erupted in Mashhad, one of Iran’s biggest cities and the site of its holiest shrine. To protest the evictions, the squat¬ters— mainly unskilled workers em¬ployed in nearby factories—went on a rampage, burning automobiles, attack¬ing banks, and looting government facilities. At least six were reported to have been killed and hundreds injured in the largest anti-government demon¬stration since the revolution.

Before leaving the tiny apartment, I asked Zohreh whom she favored in the election. She had kind words for Rafsanjani, but she said she hoped the Ruhaniyoun would win. Then I asked if she had voted. She said no. Zohreh's reaction reminded me of what an Iranian businessman had told me earlier. "Ten years ago, people were political," he said. "Now they don't have time for politics. They're just trying to survive."

After the polls closed, election officials reported that almost nineteen million Iranians, or sixty-five per cent of the eligible voters, had cast their ballots; the government had said that it would be satisfied if eighteen million turned out. In the first round, just over half the Majlis seats were decided; the runoff election was held on May 8th. To practically no one's surprise, the Ruhaniyat swept both rounds. Teheran's press referred to the results as a "landslide."

The biggest casualties among the Ruhaniyoun were Mohammad Musavi Khoeiniha, who had blessed the American Embassy seizure; former Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohta¬shami; and Speaker Mehdi Karrubi. Abolgasem Sarhadizadeh and Fakhreddin Hejazi also lost their seats. Among the winners were Mohammad Javad Larijani and nine women—more than twice the number in the previous parliament, and more than four times the number in the United States Senate. In the end, President Rafsanjani's supporters won seventy per cent of the seats in the new Majlis – a clear mandate to speed up reforms.

Iran’s post-Khomeini leadership had seemingly been confident of victory. Even before the final votes were cast, the government announced changes in one of its newest laws. To fulfill loan conditions set by the I.M.F. and the World Bank, the government lifted the forty-nine-per-cent restriction on foreign investment. Outsiders may now put into Iran and take out of Iran as much as they want—an investment law even more liberal than those of the Shah's era.

ONE of the last polling stations I visited during the April vote was set up at the husseiniyeh next to Khomeini's house, in Jamaran, in the scenic Elbourz foothills. A husseiniyeh is a traditional Shiite social and mourn¬ing center, named after the seventh-century martyr Hussein. The Ayatol¬lah made many of his most important speeches from a specially built balcony at the husseiniyeh.

Since shortly after the revolution, the main road into Jamaran has been well marked by a ten-foot model of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, the site, according to legend, of the Prophet Muhammad's ascent into Heaven. While Khomeini was alive, the road was cordoned off by Revolutionary Guards, and Jamaran residents often complained of having to go through car, body, and parcel searches every time they came home. Now the road is open, but several blocks surrounding Khomeini's house are still cordoned off, because many of the mullahs, both Ruhaniyat and Ruhaniyoun, have built large houses nearby. So I walked the last few blocks, along a street named for one of the war's martyrs; the air was crisply cool and refreshing after the heat in Shahpour.

Along the way, I saw two young men talking outside one of the houses. I stopped to ask directions, and they invited me in for tea. It was a big house, filled with overstuffed sofas and other expensive-looking furniture; they put a tape of American rock music on a cassette player. One of the young men told me that he was a chemistry student, and that his friend, a mechanical engineer, had become a furniture salesman, because engineers' salaries were too low. Both were in their mid-twenties. I asked them what they thought of the revolution, and they immediately changed the subject to the economy. “I’ll have a university degree soon, but I don’t have any possibilities for a job," the chemistry student said. "I'll probably end up selling cigarettes on the corner. You have to have at least three hundred million rials just to get a small house now. You have to find thirty thousand rials just to die. Both of us will end up living with our parents forever."

He also had no use for the mullahs. "All of them—they're corrupt," he said. "They tell people to live simply, but look at the houses around here. They live like kings." Resentment against the so-called Mercedes mul¬lahs—those who have profited finan¬cially as well as politically during the theocratic rule—was a recurrent theme this spring.

I asked the two whom they favored in the election. Both said they would prefer the Ruhaniyat. I asked if they had voted yet. Both said no.

When I finally made my way up to the husseiniyeh, I found only a couple of people voting; the area looked almost deserted. From the street, I could see the roof of Khomeini's house behind a high metal gate. On an impulse, I asked one of the Revolutionary Guards if I might go inside. He hesitated, then shrugged and went to get the keys.

In stark contrast to the mansions in Jamaran, the Imam's home is small and simple—rather unimpressive. The exterior is of rough brick and has an unfinished look. The main salon, at¬tached by a walkway to the husseiniyeb, contained only a couch, an ottoman, and an end table. Through most of his life, Khomeini preferred to sit on the floor; only in his later years did he need the support of a chair. On a small porch outside the salon was a five-foot-high black-and-white photograph of Khomeini. A vase of spring flowers was on the end table.

I remarked to the guard that I had been to the Ayatollah's tomb, but that I felt his empty home somehow had more finality to it.

"Yes," the guard replied. "And Iran will never be the same."

Monday, June 1, 1992


Summer 1992

By Robin Wright

Thirteen years after the Iranian Revolution wrought the world's first modern theocracy, Islam is once again emerging as a powerful political idiom. Not only in the Middle East, but from north and west Africa to the former Asian republics of the Soviet Union, from India to western China, Islam is increasingly a defining force in evolving political agendas. The new burst of activism has reached such proportions that, with the demise of communism, Islam is increasingly--and erroneously--being perceived as one of the future ideological rivals to the West.

The latest phase began in the late 1980s. It varies distinctly from the Islamic experience in Iran in 1979, in Lebanon after 1982 and among a host of smaller cells in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and elsewhere during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The two most conspicuous differences are the constituency and tactics of the new Islamists.[1]


The first phase was more often associated with Shiite Muslims, Islam's so-called second sect.[2] Besides the Iranian Revolution, groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iraq's Dawa, which also operated on the Shiite-populated eastern shores of the Arabian peninsula, accounted for the most visible and enduring activism.[3] The recent resurgence of Islam, however, is more prevalent among the mainstream Sunni, who account for at least 85 percent of the world's one billion Muslims. The Sunni are also spread more widely through the 75 nations that constitute Dar al Islam, or House of Islam. With the exceptions of Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Yemen, the Sunni dominate countries stretching from Africa to the Levant, the Arabian peninsula, across the southern tier of the new Commonwealth of Independent States, into western China, south Asia and as far east. as Indonesia, the most populous Muslim state.

Unlike the extremism that typified the first resurgence--in political upheavals as well as suicide bombings, hijackings and hostage seizures--the new Islamic activism is now characterized by attempts to work within the system rather than outside it. Since 1989, for example, Islamists from diverse groups have run for parliament in Jordan and Algeria. Indonesia's largest Muslim movement, which has support from up to 40 million people, has held peaceful rallies this year to urge democratic reforms in the authoritarian state. Since the dismemberment of the Soviet Union in 1991, Islamists in the former Central Asian republics have petitioned for legal recognition, to end years as underground movements, so they can run for public office.

Reasons for the new preference for ballots over bullets vary within each country and movement, but they generally reflect an acknowledgement that the costs of extremism in the 1980s proved too high. Iran's isolation, for example, forced it backward economically, not forward. Also the demise of communism starkly illustrated the joint dangers of totalitarian rule and confrontation with the West. Islamists have not failed to recognize that pluralism and interdependence are the catchwords of the 1990s.

Cooperation has by no means fully replaced confrontation. But in key regions Islamists are no longer simply striking out angrily at what they do not like. After centuries marked mainly by dormancy, colonialism and failed experiments with Western ideologies, many Islamists feel they have a mandate to create constructive alternatives. Further pressed by the same factors that have led to political and economic transformations globally, a growing number of Islamists are now trying to reconcile moral and religious tenets with modern life, political competition and free markets. Few Islamists, as yet, have suitable or complete answers. The common campaign slogan, "Islam is the solution," remains simplistically inadequate.

Politicized Islam is not alone. At the end of the twentieth century, religion has become an energetic and dynamic force for change worldwide. Among the struggling societies attempting both to rid themselves of bankrupt or inefficient systems and to find viable alternatives, religion provides ideals, identity, legitimacy and an infrastructure during the search. In varying degrees, Buddhists in east Asia, Catholics in eastern Europe, Latin America and the Philippines, Sikhs and Hindus in India and even Jews in Israel have turned to their faith to define their goals and to mobilize.

The various attempts within Islam, however, also reflect a deeper quest one that could make the Islamists' impact broader or more lasting, because Islam is the only major monotheistic religion that offers not only a set of spiritual beliefs but a set of rules by which to govern society. Besides the challenge of finding a place in the new global order, Islam is now at a pivotal and profound moment of evolution, a juncture increasingly equated with the Protestant Reformation. The traditional role of the faith, its leadership, organization, priorities and interpretation, are also under scrutiny.

The changing focus is reflected even in the names. The first phase of the Islamic resurgence was often symbolized by a host of groups--in Lebanon, Egypt and Israel's occupied territories--named Islamic Jihad, or Holy War, while the latest activism is most noted for groups--from Tunisia to Tajikistan---called the Islamic Renaissance Party. The challenge is as much within Islam as in the countries and systems in which Muslims live. In many ways Islamic societies now find themselves in the opening rounds of what the West went through in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in redefining both the relationship between God and man and between man and man.

The challenge for Islamists is all the greater because the political climate--at home and in the international arena--is hardly conducive to reforms or experimentation, much less full expression. The specter of Iran's revolutionary excesses and Lebanon's terrorist zealotry continues to color local and Western attitudes toward Islam. Despite the growing body of evidence to the contrary, Islam is still widely--and again wrongly--perceived as inherently extremist. Despite the many shades and shapes of Islamic activism, it is also still wrongly treated as a single or monolithic force.


The spectrum of new Islamist activism is reflected strikingly in two geographic extremes of the Muslim world: north Africa and Central Asia. In both areas since 1990 Islam has become one of the principal challenges to socialist rule. Both regions present a challenge as the West tries to define its relationship with Islam after years of tension.

Algeria has become the primary test case for the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Islamic activism emerged in Algeria when President Chandli Bendjedid ended socialist one-party rule after growing public discontent was capped in 1988 by riots in which at least 400 people were killed. In the first phase of a three-part transition the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won a stunning upset in the 1990 local elections, capturing more than 60 percent of regional assemblies and 55 percent of municipal councils. The National Liberation Front (FLN), which had ruled since leading Algeria's eight-year war against French colonialism, came in an embarrassingly poor second.

The election, the first free multiparty poll since independence in 1962, was as much a rejection of the FLN as a vote of support for the Islamists. Almost three decades of inefficient and increasingly corrupt rule had finally caught up with the FLN. By 1992 at least 14 million of Algeria's 25 million population were estimated to live below the poverty line. With a $25 billion foreign debt that consumed almost 70 percent of its oil revenues, the government had little left to address mass grievances over chronic housing shortages, unemployment, substandard education and social services and limited development. And with 65 percent of the population under the age of 30, the majority had no memory of, much less nostalgia for, the Algerian revolution.

In contrast the energetic Islamists offered a legitimate and familiar alternative, if not a very detailed program. Their appeal was also reflected in their response to a strike called during the election by gas stations, newspapers and even trash collectors. After mounds of garbage accumulated on the streets of the Mediterranean capital, Islamists mobilized supporters to clean up the refuse with their hands. The Islamists' commitment was in stark contrast to the malaise within the FLN.

Because of the large rejectionist vote in local elections, the second phase of the transition, elections for parliament, was expected to be a more accurate reading of the public's political will. In the first round in December 1991, which fielded more than fifty parties, FIS captured 188 of the 231 seats decided, only 28 short of a majority. This time the FLN came in third, with only 15 seats, trailing after the Berber-dominated party, the Socialist Forces Front, which won 25. Hamas, another Islamic party, came in fourth. Although the FIS total was a million less than during the local elections, it appeared set to win a decisive parliamentary majority in the second round for 199 undecided seats scheduled for January 16, 1992.

The two elections represented a political milestone. No Islamic party since the Iranian Revolution had won such an overwhelming victory, and no Islamic party had ever definitively defeated a long-dominant power through democratic means.

But the world's first Islamic democracy never had a chance to prove itself. Five days before the second round of elections, a "white coup" led by Defense Minister Khaled Nezzar forced Bendjedid to resign. He was replaced with a five-man High State Council, and elections were then suspended. Over the following weeks, the FIS leadership was detained and the party banned. At least 8,800 sympathizers or supporters of both FIS and Hamas--some claimed the figure was as high as 30,000--were also rounded up by late March and dispatched to detention camps in the southern Sahara desert. In an attempt to revoke the results of the 1990 local elections, dozens of mayors and many regional assembly leaders who had won power on the FIS ticket were also arrested; the assemblies were dissolved.

Islamists were the target, but democracy was the ultimate victim. The Algerian junta has hinted that it might follow through with the final phase of the transition, presidential elections, due in late 1993; but FIS is unlikely to be included. Indeed the new government's strategy is to use the interim--with the help of foreign aid and loans and by selling off oil and gas rights--to address the grievances that led the electorate to vote for FIS. The council also reportedly favors rewriting the constitution to prevent future attempts by Islamists to enter politics. On April 29, Algeria's Supreme Court ordered the FIS dissolved.

The junta, however, is unlikely to survive. The Algerian coup was in many ways like the abortive Moscow putsch in 1991; although the process may take longer, it will fail for similar reasons. Bendjedid's phased transition to pluralism produced more than just multiple parties. From a handful of newspapers under state control, Algeria's press soared to dozens of diverse and increasingly outspoken publications. Once-cloistered debate moved into open forums, while public interest groups, including a human rights movement, began to flourish. Most of all, Algerians, particularly the disaffected, tasted empowerment and liked it; its indefinite suppression will eventually produce a backlash.

The junta's tactics have also been crass. To lead the new ruling council, the military brought back Mohammed Boudiaf, an aging revolutionary hero who fell out with his cohorts in 1963 and has lived in exile ever since. The detentions were ruthless. When security forces were unable to find a wanted Islamist, they merely picked up another family member. Many detainees have undergone summary trials and have been sentenced to two to twenty years in prison. The government also banned all public gatherings around mosques and even moved to replace 40 percent of the leaders of Algeria's 9,000 mosques; scores of imams (Islamic religious leaders) were among those detained. Algerians have not experienced such repression since the war for independence.

But the junta is most likely to fail because it has given new legitimacy to the very force it sought to suppress---Islam. After the coup, the FLN fragmented into factions for and against the putsch, while opposition parties were unable to mobilize effectively against the junta. In the disarray, FIS was left as the force pushing hardest for democracy.

The movement's remarkable discipline after the coup helped. Despite the riot police and army cordons around key mosques, FIS leaders repeatedly urged restraint. "The army has a scenario for us, but it is a role we will not play. We will not respond to provocation," acting FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani told thousands of the faithful at Friday prayers.[4] Although FIS is a multifaceted movement with factions that favor different levels of activism, as well as differing versions of Islamic democracy, it was visibly united in trying to prevent bloodshed.

Even after the mass arrests, FIS demands two months after the coup were limited to release of political detainees, an end to persecution of Islamists, a dialogue with all political parties and resumption of elections. Notably it did not call for jihad. Most of the sporadic hit-and-run attacks, particularly against Algerian security forces, were linked to a host of small and loosely organized Islamic extremist cells not under FIS control. Among them were Hijra wa Takfir, or Sin and Atonement, and the Afghans, so-named for their participation in the Afghan war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s; many were reportedly trained by the CIA in Pakistan. Despite the temptation, FIS did not abandon democracy to achieve its goals.


For the Arab and Muslim worlds, Algeria is not simply a test case of the affinity of Islam and democracy. It is also a test of whether the West can reconcile with Islam. On that count the West's record is only marginally better than the junta's.

After the Algerian coup, Western reaction was notable largely for its passivity. The U.S. State Department officially regretted the suspension of the democratic process in Algeria and then fell silent. Several Western governments allowed the junta's representatives to pay official visits to explain their plans and goals. Some even considered aid. A consortium of European and American banks provided $1.45 billion to help Algeria spread out the servicing of its debt.

Before the U.N. General Assembly last fall, President Bush said: "People everywhere seek government of and by the people. And they want to enjoy their inalienable rights to freedom and property and person." The United States, he added, supported those rights globally. If Algeria is any example, however, there is an implicit exception: any country where Islam is the winner of a democratic election?

The lack of U.S. response, at a time when the Bush administration is active and outspoken in advocating political pluralism, makes it appear that the White House prefers a police state to an Islamic democracy. Indeed the absence of an international outcry or Western condemnation--as there was, for example, after Peru's president suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament in April--has encouraged the junta to pursue its course, a fact FIS has publicly noted.

The FIS platform remains uncomfortably vague. Its achievements in Algeria's municipalities during 18 months in power were mixed, in no small part because of disputes with FLN governors over budget allocations and priorities. Despite FIS reassurances, other Algerian parties feared the Islamists would eventually ban them and declare a theocracy, as happened in Iran.
Yet Algeria was arguably one of the best places to experiment with Islamic democracy. First, as a Mediterranean country, it is still strongly influenced by the nearby West, unlike Iran where the West had a strong arm but was physically distant. Algerian Islamists have, so far, been unusually sensitive to the West's fears.

Second, the core issue in Islamicizing societies is implementation of sharia, Islamic law, as either a source or the source of law--a step not necessarily incompatible with Western interests. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both of which have close ties with the West, are but two of many Islamic countries where sharia holds sway.

Third, with presidential elections not scheduled until 1993, the transition had a built-in restraint. Whatever majority FIS won in parliament, Bendjedid still would have had veto power over any drastic changes to the constitution for the first two years.

Finally, it would have been preferable to have the Islamists accountable in public office rather than operating as clandestine cells outside the system. The coup has encouraged violence, ironically, much as French repression against Algerian demands for independence ignited one of the longest and bloodiest wars in the Third World.

Unfortunately too much time has now passed to go back. In Algeria the Islamists are virtually certain to prevail. The question is what will happen to FIS along the way. Over time the junta's draconian tactics may polarize, even divide, the dominant Islamist movement, giving the upper hand to fiery young preachers like Ali Benhaj rather than thoughtful and temperate FIS leaders like Hachani, a petrochemical engineer, and philosophy professor Abassi Madani. In late March a FIS statement said the government's refusal to engage in dialogue and its repressive tactics could lead supporters to respond with force to "return the right of the people to choose those who will govern them." The formal order to dissolve FIS virtually ensures a more militant response. And what happens in Algeria is certain to influence other parts of the Islamic world.

For the West the danger is that its reluctance to pressure the junta, or even to speak out against it, will be seen as an inherently anti-Islamic sentiment even when Islamists work through the democratic process. That perception could have long-term consequences beyond Algeria. The end result of the Algerian coup is likely to be costly for virtually everyone but the military junta.


Another vital new region of growing Islamist sentiment is in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Five predominately Muslim states have become independent since the August 1991 Moscow putsch: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Four of the five are the last bastions of strict communist rule. The exception is Kyrgyzstan although, like its neighbors, communists still control its parliament.

Islam is not new to Central Asian politics. It was one of the unifying forces in the region as far back as the eighth century. During the medieval reigns of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane in Turkestan, Islam reached its glory with contributions in science and the arts that still account for many of the region's greatest accomplishments and monuments. Although its influence varied widely among the largely nomadic tribes and clans of the mountains and steppes, Islam thrived until tsarist Russia absorbed Turkestan in the nineteenth century and began denigrating the religion.

After Bolshevik revolutionaries refused to grant the region autonomy, Islam was still sufficiently strong to be one of two mobilizing forces in the subsequent six-year civil war. In 1920 Basmachi rebels secretly declared a new state, the Turkestan Independent Islamic Republic. It never had a chance, however, against Russian troops. To prevent further pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic nationalist movements, Stalin then carved up old Turkestan, rather arbitrarily, into the five current states and flooded Central Asia with Russian settlers in the 1920s and 1930s.

Despite seven decades of religious repression, many of the 60 million Soviet Muslims managed to keep the faith alive by teaching and practicing it in homes and illegal mosques.[6] And since the Soviet "freedom of conscience" law was passed in 1990 Central Asia has undergone a stunning Islamic resurgence. Some estimates claim that up to ten new mosques open daily in the mineral-rich region, which shares strategic borders with Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan. The number of madrasahs, or seminaries, is also mushrooming, as is enrollment. More important to the region's political evolution are the various branches of the Islamic Renaissance Party. Although it finally managed to register in Moscow as a legal party in 199l, its activities were banned in four of the five Central Asian states because of communist fear of Islam as a political force.[7]

Over the next three years Central Asia--the most conservative region during Soviet rule--faces the challenge of major political change, particularly when it comes time to vote for the first post-Soviet parliaments. The contest will pit the stalwart communists, most now renamed, against the new democrats and emerging Islamists in all five states. Despite the precedents set in the European republics, the communists in Central Asia's parliaments show little sincere interest in opening up political systems. And despite more eager promises of economic liberalization, few have allowed the sale of valuable state properties that provide them with power, patronage and funds.

Unlike other Muslim societies, however, the Central Asians have never had direct or indirect exposure to democracy. Even in Kyrgyzstan, which has the only genuine communist-turned-democratic president, democracy remains an alien concept tied, in most people's minds, more to economic than political freedom. Leaders of Kyrgyzstan's Democratic Movement believe it will take at least another generation before democracy is fully understood and takes root. Elsewhere, prodemocracy groups, such as Uzbekistan's Birlik and Tajikistan's Democratic Party, have so far attracted mainly the small intelligentsia.

In contrast, Central Asians are quite naturally returning to their cultural roots after more than 150 years of Russian colonialism. They are reverting to their Turkic and Persian languages and abandoning the cyrillic alphabets imposed on both tongues by Moscow. The life-cycle rituals are being restored. In this context, Islam is certain to be a major factor in shaping the future.
Islam, however, is undergoing its own upheaval, pitting "official" leaders against "unofficial" Islam. During communist rule the new imams and a handful of mosques allowed to operate in Central Asia were approved, and therefore controlled, by the state. Since the late 1970s, dissident Muslims have been operating underground, mobilizing opposition to atheistic communist rule and practicing the faith in clandestine mosques. Most of the new mosques have been privately built by local populations; most are also more closely aligned with unofficial Islam.

The changes have also been reflected in attempts to remove the leadership at Tashkent's Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Central Asia, which was the Kremlin's mechanism of control.
At this stage the mainstream branches of the Islamic Renaissance Party have moderate goals. Most center around ending communist domination of the political, economic and religious hierarchies, restoring Islamic culture and outlawing alcohol, drugs and prostitution. Many have no objection to the relations Israel is now establishing with Central Asia.

While most favor adoption of sharia as a source of law, virtually none envision a theocracy run by the clergy or an Iranian-style Islamic republic in which other parties would be outlawed.[8] The Islamic leader in Tajikistan, the only Farsi-speaking state in Central Asia, made a point of rejecting the Iranian model, pointing out differences between the Shia and the Sunni as well as Western and Russian fears of radical Islamic states.

In a series of interviews over the past year, Islamists throughout Central Asia and in north Africa have talked convincingly about crafting their own models of an Islamic democracy. Their versions, even within a single group, vary widely. Some suggest borrowing democratic aspects from secular Turkey and Islamic government practices from Pakistan, although they say neither country provides an ideal model. Few want to borrow anything except financial support from Saudi Arabia, the "Guardian of Islam" and site of its holiest shrines. All claim their versions of Islamic democracy would allow other parties and free speech, but would impose strict penalties on unIslamic practices such as alcohol, prostitution and drugs.

Many Islamists, in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for example, also now coordinate with the new democrats. The most visible challenge to communist rule in Central Asia took place in Tajikistan last September when the new democrats and Islamists mobilized thousands of supporters for a peaceful vigil in Dushanbe to demand democratic elections. They pledged not to take down their tent city across from the parliament until the acting president resigned. Facilitated by the Islamists, the rally was the largest and most effective protest against communist rule since the Basmachi uprising, and the communist government eventually agreed to hold democratic elections. This spring the Islamists and pro-democracy groups again cooperated in a prolonged but peaceful sit-in that forced the communist president to agree to form a national coalition government.

As in Algeria the test ahead plays out at both the local and international levels. The longer the Central Asian regimes delay real pluralism--allowing all parties to work within the system rather than outside it--the greater the danger of a more embittered, strident Islam emerging to challenge the ancien regimes.

Some are already tempting fate. The Uzbek leadership has restored religious holidays and returned religious property nationalized by the Soviets. Simultaneously, however, it has banned all religious parties from politics and the clergy from running for public office. In Kazakhstan, secular opposition parties have been legalized. In contrast, the first political detainees since independence were seven members of Alash, the local Islamic party named after the mythical leader of the Kazakhs. They were charged with "insulting the honor and dignity" of the president and holding unauthorized rallies. And throughout Central Asia, renamed communists are arguing that they should retain power to block politicized Islam.

The West has also taken a confrontational stand on Islam in Central Asia. Western officials, including Secretary of State James A. Baker, have recently toured the new Central Asian states to urge them to emulate secular Turkey rather than neighboring Islamic Iran during the transition to post-Soviet rule. Baker met with fledgling democrats in only one republic, Uzbekistan; in three visits he never met with a single Islamic leader. Although the United States stressed human rights and pluralism in its talks with Central Asian leaders, the real message appears to be as much anti-Islam as pro-democracy.

The Bush administration is making the same mistakes in Central Asia and Algeria that the Carter administration made in Iran by backing away from the unknown Islamists before even trying to deal with them. Generally the West is not applying the most important lesson of the Cold War: co-option is far more effective than confrontation in undermining a rival, in this case one perceived rather than real. As in Algeria, the West would also be far better served by encouraging real democratic openings that include Islamists rather than tolerating authoritarian systems that exclude them.

Western alarm over Islamic activism also appears to be premature. Iran and Pakistan were the first two countries to heighten their presence in Central Asia; both opened diplomatic missions and discussed new cooperation and cultural ties. And Iran's Ali Akbar Velayati was the first foreign minister to tour the entire region last fall.

Rather than compete for influence, however, Iran has so far preferred cooperation, even with the current Central Asian leadership. At a Tehran summit in February, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey revived the Economic Cooperation Organization and expanded it to include Central Asia and Azerbaijan.[9] Iran's economy is also now so deeply troubled that the post-Khomeini leadership is increasingly looking inward rather than to regional expansion. Its only direct intervention in the former Soviet republics has so far been limited to peace efforts in nearby Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Central Asian Islamists are not interested in imitating Iran. Iran, in turn, does not have the resources or even the will to meddle significantly in Central Asia. After two wars in the Persian Gulf and another in neighboring Afghanistan, its interests are very specifically focused on economic development to prevent the whole region from becoming a backwater.

Indeed Iran's elections for majlis, or parliament, in April 1992 revealed the depth of change in even the Islamist movement's most fanatic proponent. To end opposition against opening up Iran's economy and foreign policy, the regime of President All Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani introduced a screening process that disqualified one-third of the more than 3,000 candidates, including 40 incumbents. Most were revolutionary hard-liners blocking economic reforms, such as privatization, foreign investment and overtures to the West; several were associated with the revolution s early judicial excesses and the 1979-81 takeover of the American embassy. Not surprisingly, the new majlis is filled with supporters of market reforms and diplomatic initiatives.
Iran's revolution still has a long way to go in rectifying human rights abuses at home and extremist tactics abroad. But Tehran's assistance last year in helping win the release of American and British hostages in Lebanon and its neutrality during Operation Desert Storm are further indications that Iran is willing to compromise, even occasionally concede, in order to reenter the community of nations. Although Iran is far from being an Islamic democracy, the example it is setting today differs significantly from the revolution's early years.


The West and Islam have reached a crossroad in their relationship. The clash of the past 13 years epitomized by the antagonism between the United States and Iran--need no longer serve as the paradigm. Unfortunately, despite the strong evidence of Islam's political appeal and its future potential, the United States and its Western allies still have no more tangible strategy to contend with Islam than they did after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini forced the shah of Iran from the Peacock throne in 1979.

As Islamist sentiment grows, the West has two stark alternatives: one is to use this important juncture--when both democracy and Islam are growing--to press Muslim-dominated countries toward political pluralism and then to accept the results of free and fair democratic elections. By having sided with democracy from an early stage, the West will then be in a stronger position to hold new Islamic governments accountable if they abuse or abandon democratic principles--without being seen as anti-Islamic.

The incentive is to ease tensions between Western and Eastern cultures and countries. The next few years will be as important for democracy's evolution as for Islam's. For two millennia democracy has taken root only in Western cultures. [10] One of the next major global challenges will be determining whether democracy is adaptable to Eastern countries, including Islamic and Confucian societies, and vice versa. This is a moment to encourage, rather that obstruct, Islam's expression in pluralist forms.

The second alternative is to try to counter or contain Islamist movements by backing or aiding governments that repress them. Such a policy could become as costly and prolonged as fighting communism, and potentially more difficult. Challenging an ideology that is supported by a failed economic system is one thing; demonizing a centuries-old faith and culture is another. Moreover, as in the Cold War, the United States would have to cultivate some unsavory allies along the way. Many of the regimes most committed to blocking Islamist movements--ranging from Syria's Hafez al-Assad to Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi--are also opposed to democracy.

This alternative--an implicit or declared policy of stopping Islamist movements before they rise to power could also realize the West's greatest fears: unity of the diverse and disparate Islamist groups into an anti-Western force and the use of extremist and terrorist tactics. Finally, the broader danger is that trying to obstruct Islamists will, in turn, lead to a new East-West divide with far deeper passions--and a bloody history--behind it.

The Islamic resurgence clearly presents a challenge to the West. But it also provides enormous opportunity.
The various Islamic movements are often called "fundamentalists" in the West, but most are in fact not fundamentalist in their agendas. Fundamentalism generally urges passive adherence to literal reading of scriptures and does not advocate change of the social order, instead focusing on reforming the lives of the individual and family. Most of today's Islamic movements resemble Catholic Liberation theologians who urge active use of original religious doctrine to better the temporal and political lives in a modern world. Islamist or Islamism more accurately describes their forward-looking, interpretive and often even innovative attempts to reconstruct the social order.

Shiite activism can be traced in part to the tenets and history of the faith. Shiite clerics are invested with the power to interpret God's word to the faithful, while Sunni Muslim clerics are considered guides or advisers--a difference analogous to the Catholic and Protestant sects. The Shia are also more easily mobilized because the seventh-century schism that led them to break from the Sunni was based on fighting injustice.

The two-week seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 and the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat by Sunni Muslim fanatics were two major exceptions.
From a speech given at the Bab el-Qoed mosque during the week of the coup.

Ironically then Vice President Bush helped upgrade relations during a visit to Algeria in 1983, a visit that symbolized the new importance of relations.

The Soviet Union had the fifth-largest Muslim population in the world.

Before the Soviet demise the Islamic Renaissance Party was a loosely knit group of cells based in diverse republics and autonomous provinces with large Muslim populations. With the Soviet breakup, they have become separate parties.

Interviews with representatives of the Islamic Republic Party and Alash throughout Central Asia.

Sensitive to its 40 percent Russian population, Kazakhstan has observer status.
The exceptions are countries where it has been imposed, such as Japan after World War II.

Robin Wright, a Los Angeles Times correspondent, is on a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She recently co-authored FLASHPOINTS: Promise and Peril in a New World.