Iran's capital was quiet yesterday after a week of violent protests and counter-protests. But the underlying cause of the unrest -- the yearning among young Iranians for freedom -- remains.
That yearning first registered with the outside world in May 1997, when Iranians rejected the guidance of their conservative clerical leadership and elected as their president Mohammed Khatemi, then a little-known mullah who advanced the shocking view that perhaps Western-style democracy had its merits.
Khatemi, with his radiant smile and familiarity with deTocqueville and other Western thinkers, seemed to herald a new era of openness. But conservatives, who still control the levers of power in Iran's theocracy, fought him at every turn.
So when conservatives in the government shut down a liberal newspaper supportive of the Iranian president, students at Tehran University staged demonstrations that touched off a violent attack by police and hard-line vigilantes. It was the worst unrest since the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the pro-American shah.
For now, at least, the fury of the students and their sympathizers has been contained. After initial expressions of support for the protesters, Khatemi sided with the forces of order; on Wednesday, huge crowds massed in Tehran for a carefully orchestrated, pro-government rally that featured chants of "Death to America" and portraits of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Yesterday, the university dormitories that had been the focal point of the protests were nearly deserted. But student organizers said they would continue to demand the firing of Tehran's police chief, a public trial of two officers who allegedly commanded the attack on the demonstrators, and the return of the bodies of their dead classmates.
To many Americans, Iran remains a mysterious, forbidding land of glowering ayatollahs and mobs chanting slogans against Israel and the West. But that is an incomplete, outdated picture. More than half of Iran's 67 million people are 20 or younger. They have no memory of the revolution led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or the long hostage-taking ordeal at the U.S. Embassy.
This younger generation is hardly impervious to Western influence. Satellite dishes, while illegal, are widely used by Iranians, who roll them out at night or hide them under "chadors" -- a joking reference to the billowy black robes worn by many Iranian women in public. Bootleg videos of "Titanic" and other Hollywood hits circulate in Tehran within days of their American release. Internet access is available through Iran's version of America Online, a private firm called the Neda Rayaneh Institute for Cultural and Communications Data.
Corruption and economic mismanagement, meanwhile, have undermined popular support for Iran's clerical leadership. So, too, have the excesses of groups such as the Basij, a volunteer force that cruises parks and affluent neighborhoods in search of unmarried couples or mixed-sex parties -- a flogging offense in Iran.
Many young people in Iran say they still support the Islamic system of government. But they also yearn for more openness and accountability on the part of their leaders. And they want the government out of their personal lives.
In 1997, those forces converged behind Khatemi, a former culture minister who was driven from that post by hard-liners in 1992. While Khatemi's presidential campaign did not directly confront the religious establishment, his emphasis on civil society and the rule of law struck a chord with young people and women, who handed him an overwhelming victory over the candidate favored by Khamenei, the unelected supreme leader.
Khatemi's victory has resulted in small, halting, but nonetheless significant changes. Censorship of books and movies has eased. The social atmosphere is more relaxed, to the point where many women now feel comfortable wearing fingernail polish or showing a bit of hair beneath their head scarves. After a big win by Iran's national soccer team in the fall of 1997, young men and women danced in the streets as rock music blasted from car stereos and police looked on helplessly.
This past February, pro-Khatemi reformers captured roughly 80 percent of the vote in nationwide elections for municipal councils -- an outcome hailed as a major step toward true representative democracy in Iran.
Yet the conservative backlash -- led by clerics who decry the influence of "rappers and West-struck youth" -- has been powerful and persistent. Reluctant to directly confront the popular president, hard-liners who still dominate the judiciary and security ministries have targeted surrogates such as former Tehran mayor Gholamhossein Karabaschi, a key Khatemi backer recently jailed on corruption charges. Dissident writers have been murdered. And Khamenei has publicly challenged Khatemi's call for better relations with the West.
Frustration with the slow pace of social change, coupled with Iran's continuing economic woes, prepared the ground for the latest unrest. According to news reports from the Iranian capital, residents joined students in chanting, "We don't want a government of force, we don't want a mercenary police," outside the gates of Tehran University. Others shouted, "Army brothers, why kill brothers?" -- a slogan used 20 years ago by demonstrators against the shah.
Khatemi initially expressed sympathy for the students. But as the protests deteriorated into rioting, he was forced to defend the system of which he remains a part. The question now is whether Khatemi -- or anyone -- will be able to control the forces his election set in motion.