Iran's Youth Again Key to Election


Early on Friday mornings, 20-year-old Mehei Khosravi and hundreds of other young people hike into the jagged mountains just north of Tehran, seeking sanctuary from the harsh restrictions of the Islamic social code.

A few months ago, Khosravi could have strolled up to the Alborz foothills with no problem, in one of the few tangible benefits of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. But with Iran's presidential election just a few days off, hard-line opponents of Khatami have been waging a campaign of intimidation, shutting down newspapers and jailing critics. One of their prime targets has been young voters.

As Khosravi and three relatives set out for their weekend retreat last Friday, they were stopped by Islamic vigilantes who shoved him into a shack and began kicking him in the shins, until his sister's screams drew a crowd.

"They treated me like I was a criminal," he said a short while after his run-in with the Basiji, or volunteer Islamic militia.

Young people have become a target of both the right and the left because they represent one of the most powerful voting blocs in the country. Twenty-two years ago, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile in France after the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the population was 35 million. Today it is almost double that. There are 37 million Iranians who have no memory of the Islamic Revolution, yet have the potential to reshape it.

These voters were instrumental in propelling the reformist Khatami into office four years ago. Now they want to place national interests such as the economy at least on a par with religious interests.

Young Iranians are disillusioned, even angry, at the slow pace of reform. But if hard-line forces believe that by harassing the likes of Khosravi they will convince them not to go to the polls, they have miscalculated. Young men and women across Iran are rallying behind the president with the same commitment, if not fervor, they had four years ago.

Just eight days before the actual vote, Khatami was the victor in mock elections at three major universities last week, each time taking more than 70% of the vote.

Leaders of the national student movement and young people interviewed in Tehran and the northern city of Tabriz say they are prepared, at least for now, to accept Khatami's assertion that a direct confrontation with the hard-line clerics who wield absolute power would result in an even harsher crackdown.

"Even in Western countries, reform happens gradually," said Mohammed Nadali, 22, a leader of the student Islamic Society at Tabriz University. "We believe that four years for reform is not long considering our country and cultural background. As we saw in the last election, students are influential. They will choose Mr. Khatami, and he will become president."

An Electorate Eager for Freedom and Jobs

Of the 43 million Iranians eligible to vote Friday, about 14 million are between 16 years old--when Iranians are first eligible to vote--and 25. Aides to Khatami say their opinion polls indicate that middle-class adults in their 40s and 50s are so disappointed in the slow pace of reform that they are likely to stay home. That, they say, makes the youth bloc even more important if Khatami is going to come close to the 20.7 million votes he received in 1997. If he doesn't, he won't have the leverage to push his ideas past the religious establishment.

As the hard-liners try intimidation, Khatami has tried persuasion.

"The young generation of Iran wants freedom in the framework of justice," he said Saturday at a campaign event organized for some of the 7 million youths eligible to vote for the first time in this election.

The members of this new generation are unmoved by emotional appeals invoking the revolution. Instead, they are interested in jobs, the economy and political and social freedoms.

In Iran, 85% of the unemployed are 25 or younger. There is an estimated one job for every 23 university graduates, inflation is running at an annual rate of 13%, and 35% of urban households live in poverty.

"In essence, you can talk about young people as one group," said a political analyst who asked not to be identified because he is involved with the election. "Everyone is concerned about education, jobs and the future. . . . They are disillusioned and feeling bleak."

This generation has already begun to change the face of Iran, most visibly in the social sphere.

Young men and women in Tehran sit across from one another in coffee shops sipping milkshakes and listening to Bob Dylan. Some boys have ponytails. The girls wear nail polish, and most have hair sticking out from beneath their head scarves. Young people walk side by side in the parks, sometimes even holding hands.

But these changes are only on the surface. Pressure from the young has begun to move the political leadership away from a one-track debate over Islamic values toward more practical concerns. All nine of the conservative candidates running against Khatami have set aside discussions of religion in their campaigns and focused instead on job creation, economic growth and, in one case, renewed relations with the United States.

"It is not a happy situation here," said Davoud Bavand, a former diplomat who served Iran at the United Nations. "Some people are frustrated. Some people have lost hope. But I do believe the Islamic aspect has lost credibility with the people. Even conservatives are focusing on national interests, not Islamic values."

The core of the conflict within Iranian society is the system of governance. Although there is a popularly elected president and a parliament, called the Majlis, real power rests in the hands of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and religious bodies such as the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council.

Khatami has tried to work within the system, seeking to preserve the tenets of the revolution while redefining the system's relationship with Islam.

"We are saying we have a new interpretation of Islam. This is an Islam that is not in conflict with people's freedom," said Mohammed Ali Abtahi, Khatami's chief of staff. "If religion stands in front of freedom, for sure religion will disappear."

This is not, however, an interpretation shared by the ruling mullahs.

"If freedoms were desirable, why did we bother to get rid of the shah? He did give such freedoms," said Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, a member of the Guardian Council, during weekly prayer services at Tehran University recently. "Girls and boys both like to show off their beauty. But with the way we are heading, a fire will be sparked that will burn not only them, but also burn society and burn the regime."

This sentiment has led to the crackdown. Arrests and warnings are increasing against young women not clad in proper Islamic dress. Many people have been arrested for attending Western-style parties, and 400 Internet cafes in the capital were recently shut down.

Some young people have vowed to turn their backs on the entire political process.

"I am not voting for anyone, because no one has done a damn thing," said 17-year-old Farshid Razaii, who lives in south Tehran and earns $50 a month weaving socks 12 hours a day. "I barely consider this progress. I don't accept the system. I don't accept clerics in power."

Reformists Pledge Patience--for Now

For the time being, it appears most young people will heed Khatami's call to be patient. But their concerns make them volatile.

Two years ago, students at Tehran University clashed with religious vigilantes, sparking riots at the university in Tabriz, a conservative city near the border with Turkey. Many people were injured and one student was killed in the worst unrest since the 1979 revolution.

Nargis, a 22-year-old Tabriz student who was too afraid to give her last name, recalled finding herself caught in the melee on campus. She understood the students' frustration and said they were reacting to the closure of reform newspapers and the attacks on students in Tehran. She plans to vote for Khatami on Friday but is pessimistic about the future.

"People are looking for reform which is in balance," she said. "Not too loose, not too tight. We want a society where we feel relaxed. Islam is not a religion that limits you. But the implementation right now is not completely right."

A few blocks from campus, a small Khatami campaign office was filled last week with young people watching a video of the president at his one campaign rally of the week.

"All of us have accepted that the procedure for reforms should be slow," said Shaqmir, 22, a student of mechanics. "We know the opposition won't give us power through tension and conflict. We know if we take that route, the opposition will be violent and hard."

More than 450 miles away in Tehran, hundreds of young people made it past the Basiji and into the mountains Friday. One of them was Khosravi, though his knee was bruised. Finally up in the fresh, cool air, he and his relatives started to relax.

"If this president stays, it is possible things will get better," said Farbia Ghamar, 20, Khosravi's cousin. "But if things stay the way they are now, it is a catastrophe."

The group sat beneath a canopy of leaves, resting on a platform covered with carpets and pillows that stood in a small mountain stream. They sipped tea and smoked flavored tobacco from a water pipe. Khosravi reached into his backpack and turned on a tape recorder. It began to play Western music banned by the regime.

"On the whole, I am satisfied with Khatami," Khosravi said. "We will all vote for him again."

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