Regime's Meddling in Personal Lives of Iranians Fuels Unrest

Times Staff Writer

During protests last weekend across Tehran, angry young Iranians chanted slogans against the country's Islamic system and called on the president to resign. But they also blasted pop music from their car stereos and danced between lanes of stalled traffic.

Resentment against the regime's authoritarian ways drew a select crowd of politically conscious students into the streets. However, most who turned out had a more immediate demand: Relax the social restrictions that chafe young people.

The rigid Islamic code imposed by the ruling clergy -- regulating what young people wear, who they may see and where they may go -- is acutely unpopular among men and women younger than 30, who make up 70% of Iran's estimated 70 million citizens.

Last month, an unexpected crackdown on women's attire renewed tensions, creating an atmosphere ripe for the protests that erupted in Tehran over the last week. The capital remained quiet Tuesday night, but the unrest has spread to at least six cities, students said.

Students' resentment of social restrictions has been inflamed by the slow pace of political change and threatens to continually pit the young against a regime that is willing to use force against its opponents.

"Young people have diverse demands," said Abdollah Momeni, an activist with the Office to Consolidate Unity, the main student organization. "University students care about human rights and political freedoms, but most young people would be satisfied with more personal freedom."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell gave a boost to Iran's students Tuesday by encouraging them to press ahead with demands for democratic rule. But he denied that the United States is behind the unrest.

"Our policy is to encourage people to demonstrate for their views," Powell told reporters flying with him to Cambodia for an annual Asian conference. "We are not out there inside Iran fomenting them, but if people wish to demonstrate peacefully and demonstrate for their right for a better life, that seems to us to be a proper thing to do."

Powell did not rule out resuming an informal dialogue with Iran that had developed over the last two years. The last scheduled meeting was put off indefinitely because of U.S. intelligence indicating that some Al Qaeda operatives who knew about three bombings in Saudi Arabia in May were in Iran.

In Tehran, students at a university nearly clashed with school administrators last month over a plan to move a women's dormitory, located next to the men's facility, elsewhere on campus.

Already separated in classes and on buses, these young people feel oppressed by the government's presence in their private lives. Because the clerical regime refuses to brook political dissent, their thinking goes, it has an obligation to loosen the edicts that make casual contact between men and women difficult.

Islamic covering is mandatory for women in Iran, but over the last three years the controls have loosened to the point that a trim tunic and capri pants are an acceptable substitute for the head-to-toe black sheath, or chador.

The relaxed dress code had become so entrenched that this spring, women's shops in Tehran stocked mostly light summer tunics in delicate fabrics and bright colors.

In May, however, Islamic vigilantes raided the shops, tearing the garments to shreds and forbidding shopkeepers to sell anything that may be regarded as too revealing.

The raids left women unsure of what to put on each day, reinforcing the resentment against the regime's interference in personal life and inconsistent enforcement of its rules.

Moderate President Mohammad Khatami and his allies in government have taken pains to afford Iranians a measure of privacy -- morals police no longer round up unmarried couples who technically may not be in each other's company under Islamic law or raid parties and weddings to enforce the ban on Western music and alcohol.

But these small liberties are never consistently accorded. The possibility of being harassed, arrested or fined for a small infraction such as wearing nail polish or having a Western tape in the car remains a pervasive psychological burden.

Farzaneh Ashtiani, a young homemaker who lives in northern Tehran, dresses conservatively to avoid run-ins with the morals police.

"Yes, it means giving up your most basic freedom, choosing what you look like," she said. "But it's easier than walking out of the house each day not knowing what will happen to you."

Some prominent conservatives acknowledge that the restrictions have dangerously alienated young people and say the government is moving toward easing them.

"You can't apply a piety yardstick to society at large," said Amir Mohebian, an editor at the right-leaning newspaper Resalat. "If you push people toward an extreme, it creates a backlash. Right now, we're still searching for an acceptable balance."


Times staff writer Robin Wright in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.

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