For Elaheh Koolaee, everything is a matter of gradation and choice, even the matching of the varied shades of blue in her head scarf to her royal blue linen overcoat and violet eyes. She is a prominent reformist politician in Iran, one of about 100 moderate members of parliament who were blocked from running for reelection last February by Iran's hard-line political establishment.
The moderates were removed as candidates by the country's 12-member Guardian Council. The decision was based on a loosely interpreted requirement of "believing in the Constitution," among other criteria.
Koolaee, 47, said she was sobered by the setback in political reform, but said the move toward democracy was not over. "There is a process of democratization in our country," she said in an interview. "It is two steps forward, one step backward.
"Ten years ago, there were no reformists, but we have had many achievements in the last seven years," she said. "There is a struggle for democracy, and there is resistance to it, but the process has not stopped. Our capacities to build on this must be continued."
Toward the middle of her term in parliament, Koolaee focused on international relations and gender issues. She was a central figure in the debate between hard-liners and reformers about prospects of resuming relations with the United States.
"There are many politicians among us who want to remove obstacles, but there are radical ideological groups on both sides," she said of the stalemate in U.S.-Iranian ties.
Koolaee has held top posts at Tehran University and continues to teach there. She has been praised as a prime scholar in Soviet studies and on Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus. She was at the forefront of legislators when top Iranian leaders visited Moscow or New York. She accompanied President Mohammed Khatami on an official visit to Moscow two years ago as a specialist on the Caspian region and the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Koolaee is deputy secretary of the Mosharekat Party, an important reformist group. "If they come back to power, and if Iran will ever have a proper woman politician, she will be it," said Haleh Esfandiary, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
In 1998, Koolaee resigned from her post at Tehran University as director general of educational affairs, the first woman to hold that position, when she was denied entrance into one of the faculties because she was not in a black chador, a head-to-toe garment. Thus began her entry to political action, prompted by her desire to prove that Islam was open to adaptation and reform.
She has refused to wear the chador, unlike many Iranian women who accept the dictates of conservative-minded leaders. Instead, she exercises the right to choose and think for herself, and uses only a head scarf both at home and abroad, because doing so became law after the 1979 Iranian revolution.
She said she believes women should decide for themselves, and respects the choice of those who unveil themselves while traveling abroad, such Shirin Ebadi, who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.
While she speaks in a gentle tone, even when discussing nationalism, Koolaee said Iran must adapt and engage with the world. Referring to the issue of other countries pressuring Iran on its nuclear program, she said Iranians resent being forced by other countries to make energy decisions. She cited concerns about the development of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, India and Israel. But she acknowledged that the Iranian government has failed to establish trust.
"I think they have lost time in confidence-building in the past and in recent months, but now it is not too late," she said.
Koolaee was brought up in a traditional family. Her father worked as a merchant of seeds and spices in the bustling Tehran Bazaar and Koolaee attended Islamic elementary and high schools during the rule of the shah. She wore a chador to school as a child, she said, following social and family custom. Koolaee married a cousin at age 19 and continued her university studies in international relations.
She has written 12 books and published more than 30 articles on the fall of the Soviet Union and the challenges and imperatives awaiting Iranian diplomacy. Like many intellectuals in the period leading up to the revolution, she said she was greatly influenced by the writings of the late Islamic scholar Ali Shariati. Shariati argued that Islamic identity did not preclude modernization and could embrace change as an alternative to rushed, Western-style development imposed by the shah.
A mother of four, Koolaee said she has learned how to juggle family life with the imperatives of political action. She said she is convinced that civic groups in Iran must reach out and interact with nongovernmental groups outside the country and institutes devoted to development and democracy.
"We have to remove the signs of disappointment among the population, she said. "We did not have enough connection with our public. It is not going to be easy. Of course, any kind of interaction can be helpful in addressing social, economic and developmental issues, not only political ones."