Iran struggles to improve image Islamic conference opens amid social rift

December 08, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEHRAN, Iran -- When Iranians took to the streets last month in a frenzied wave of joy, Sholeh Sharif watched in awe. Women defied Islamic conventions -- and state security forces -- to celebrate the national soccer team's entry in the World Cup: They danced with men in the street.

"I was waiting for a revolution," the 40-year-old mother of three said of the euphoria. She still waits, but tensions continue to simmer.

Eighteen years after revolution toppled the pro-Western regime of the shah and electrified the Muslim world, Iran is locked in a struggle between conservative religious leaders, who have enjoyed absolute power, and supporters of the country's new president -- a moderate, reform-minded cleric elected to office in May by an unprecedented 20 million voters.

Tomorrow, the eighth Summit of the 55-member Organization of the Islamic Conference opens here, giving Iran an opportunity to assert its dominance in a strategic region of the world and change its image as an exporter of international terrorism.

"We believe this is a good beginning to removing those misunderstandings and looking ahead to the new century," said the deputy foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The country has spiffed up this mountainous capital, built a gleaming new convention center and renovated a downtown hotel to present its best face to the international community.

But despite the unified face Iran is presenting during the summit, the events of the past month reveal the political and social rumblings under way since the election victory of cleric Mohammad Khatami.

Iranians who voted for Khatami did so in the belief that he could secure them freedom of expression, a relaxation of the fundamentalist grip on the country and an improved civil society. Many Iranians perceived a change in the political climate, no matter how slight. And a month ago, two clerics and a student leader questioned the absolute power invested in the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei and his supporters responded with force and fervor. Khamenei branded the dissident clerics "enemy agents" and called for the harshest punishment against them. Religious conservatives clashed with reform-minded students during several days of demonstrations in and outside Tehran.

Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, leader of an Islamic students organization, was among the first to call for limits on Khamenei's power. He paid for his outspokenness in blood.

As he sat in his office last month, religious militants broke into the building. They cried out his name and demanded to know why he criticized the supreme leader.

"Why did you insult him?" they demanded. The mob broke windows, ransacked the office, destroyed equipment and beat Tabarzadi up.

Today, his bloodied shirt hangs from a bookshelf in the office. His right hand is bandaged. A welt mars his face where his attackers beat him with a cord.

Tabarzadi said he spoke out against the autocratic power of the religious leader because he believed Iranians could speak more freely after the election of Khatami. He learned otherwise.

"We think there is a serious challenge between Khatami and the people and the other dominating powers within the system on the other side," said Tabarzadi, 38. "And this is a very serious challenge."

Khatami never commented on the political turmoil that erupted with the clerics in the holy city of Qom. Tabarzadi and other supporters don't fault him. They recognize that his power is limited -- Iran's constitution invests the religious leader with control over the security forces and the judiciary.

"The people have voted for him to bring change. But if they continue this way, nothing will change," said Ali Mirdamadi, a 20-year-old student at Tehran Polytechnic Institute, the site of student clashes last month. Some Tehranians supported Ayatollah Khamenei's handling of the dissidents -- the home and property of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri were seized by the government.

"Because of the sensitivity of the conference the leader has done the very right thing," said Hussein Ghaemi, a 32-year-old government manager from Tehran. "It's very important for us to have this conference done in the right way. People feel the most important thing is Iran's reputation and honor in this conference."

The victory of Iran's soccer team in its bid for a World Cup berth diverted the country's attention from the religious imbroglio. The spontaneous response of the people to the news -- the dancing in the street -- surprised many here.

The presence of female fans at a ceremony for the athletes -- despite a government warning to stay away to "safeguard Islam's dignity" -- upended the status quo here.

"Socially speaking, human society has a collective subconscious like an individual," said Ibrahim Yazdi, an advocate of political reforms in Iran. "In many cases experience says the collective unconscious makes the right decision."

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