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In Tehran, This Guys' Night Out Is About Getting Down to the Hard Line

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 1, 2006

TEHRAN The weekly gathering of those who still believe most in the Islamic Revolution was to start promptly at 5 p.m. The time was right there in the lower left-hand corner of Ya Lesarat al-Hussein, the hard-line weekly newspaper that sponsors the Sunday gathering.

The paper's name, which translates as "Those Who Want to Avenge the Blood of Hussein," suggests the militant flavor the gathering is intended to nurse, 27 years after the revolution that brought the clerics to power in Iran. A couple of dozen of the faithful are already in the evenly lit basement of the capital headquarters of Ansar al-Hezbollah, or Friends of the Party of God, a paramilitary group whose members were called on many a time in the previous decade to break the ranks, if not the skulls, of student protesters.

Leaving their shoes in the racks at the top of the stairs, they pad past posters trumpeting the pan-Islamic goals -- "One Day the Land of Palestine Will Be Returned to the World of Islam" -- articulated by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose virtues the guest speaker will extol when he shows up. Meanwhile, they fold their legs under themselves and read.

A slender young man moves through the silence, newsprint hung over his forearm like a waiter's towel. He hands out Partosokhan, or "In the Light of Discourse." A balding man opens to an article on the lamentable state of Iranian textiles; the world's only Islamic theocracy is importing chadors, the enveloping black robes whose name literally translates as "tent."

Another problem: Many young women aren't even wearing them, preferring fashionable scarves and snug jackets that stretch the definition of hijab , or head covering. A second young man circulates handbills announcing a march against such immodesty, on the coming Friday, after prayers. (No one will show up.)

"Mourning songs?" asks another man, handing out CDs from a stack. His white beard is neatly trimmed and he wears a pinstriped double-breasted suit. The room he moves through has the feel of a weeknight function in a church basement, except everyone's sitting on the carpet.

The last gaps are disappearing -- elbows drawn in to make room, shoulders touched in greeting -- when Mehdi Koochakzadeh strides in on long legs. Slender, bearded, strings on his glasses, he takes the only seat in the room and commences on the advertised topic: the thoughts and character of Khomeini. He waves a thick stack of quotations by the cleric whose charisma and religious authority held the Islamic Republic together through its first decade, until his death in 1989. Since then, there's been a certain amount of improvisation.

"We have no such thing as majority rule in Islam," Koochakzadeh proclaims. "If the majority says, 'We don't want an Islamic regime,' they have no right."

If it seems a strange statement from an elected member of parliament, this goes unremarked. But when, at 6:40, Koochakzadeh announces that "someone is picking me up at 7:15," a young man in the back pipes up: "Well, that's as usual. Officials are always coming to talk to us. They never listen. They never ask our opinion."

The speaker waves another quotation. Khomeini said: "What we should have in mind is the satisfaction of God, not the satisfaction of the people." The legislator adds: "They know nothing. They have no right to make a decision."

He has an eye on the clock. It's after 7. But the crowd is restless, and before Koochakzadeh can leave, someone sets a stack of papers on the desk -- written questions from the audience.

"There are several ladies in the place where I work who are not observing hijab and who make fun of me for being a Hezbolli. What should I do?"

Koochakzadeh looks up. To maintain public peace, Iran's conservatives have given youth a measure of freedom that somehow disempowers the men seated on the floor. "I understand your suffering," he says, counseling patience and the services of his office if circumstances grow intolerable. As he recites his phone number, every man in the audience appears to jot it down.

"For 27 years, you and yours have been running this country. Why is there still so much corruption?"

The reply, which runs for several paragraphs, ends with: "Most of the trouble we have has been plotted by the United States and our enemies. And part of it is you voted for people you shouldn't have." He mentions a "stupid" presidential candidate who offered every Iranian $60 a month.

From the back, a man shoots back: "This person you're talking about was much closer to Imam Khomeini than many people in high positions."

Another man calls out: "There were others who promised to put oil money on the tablecloth!" The reference is to the candidate who won, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The speaker spreads his arms wide. It's 7:20. He's late.

"See how democratic we are? When a person wants to go and make a speech, he can go to an Ansar meeting!"

In the second row, a young man in a blue blazer stands. "I was beaten up by Ansar, myself." He smiles. "They broke a tooth."

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