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National Agenda : Iran Embraces Paradoxes, if Not Western Culture : Still a 'rogue state' to some, it is a society in transition. Toward what is unclear.


TEHRAN — Sixteen years after its tumultuous revolution, Iran is in transition. To just what, however, is unclear.

On one front, many of the revolution's early images--from reverent theologians and chador-clad women to gun-toting zealots--are fast fading.

Last month, theology students protested the lack of experienced instructors and quality books--and demanded the seminary director be fired.

"A revolution within a revolution," a Tehran journalist remarked.

Young men in military fatigues are not necessarily the ardent faithful; the latest run on the outfits was because of overproduction during the war with Iraq. Prices are cheap at new army surplus shops.

But, on other fronts, stereotypes of Iran as a rogue state are being reinforced.

More than 86,000 Iranians were arrested for "social corruption" last year, while more than a million were warned about errant behavior--improper Islamic attire perhaps, or possession of illegal videotapes.

Typical is a bystander's account of young Basij volunteers--who gained fame as human minesweepers during the war and now work vice patrols--going after a group of scarved females on the ski slopes. Four of the eight girls turned out to be boys wearing Islamic cover to be with female friends.

And a new report by Amnesty International criticizes Iran for "a persistent pattern of imprisonment, political executions and suspected extrajudicial killings."

"Access to lawyers is almost always denied and political detainees have spent up to 10 years behind bars before their relatives know where they are," it concludes.

Supporters say the conflicting signs are evidence of rich paradoxes and changing times. Critics call them abhorrent contradictions of an authoritarian state.

Yet at Tehran's International Book Fair last month, stalls with American books on subjects ranging from art to medicine and computers to philosophy were packed with customers.

"It's a guaranteed sellout," said an Iranian dealer of McGraw-Hill books.

And one of summer's social highlights was the picnic, complete with volleyball, of the new Organization of American and Canadian University Graduates at a scenic park in north Tehran. About 70% of the U.S. graduates--men and women--are academics, but 30% are government officials, including ranking Cabinet officials.

But the same week as the graduates' picnic, the government announced plans to build a memorial, including a museum, mosque and rest house, to commemorate "the miracle" that foiled "Desert One," the 1980 U.S. attempt to rescue 52 American hostages held in Tehran. Eight American servicemen were killed when their aircraft collided.


Iran has never been a place of a single monolithic mind-set. And its grapevine, always ripe with wild scenarios and vivid conspiracies, is among the world's most active.

Many Iranians still believe that the CIA was behind the shah's ouster and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's rise to power in 1979--if only because, they insist, neither could have happened without U.S. approval.

But even by Iranian standards, the paradoxes of life in the mid-1990s are setting confusing precedents.

In the arts, Ben Jonson's 17th-Century drama "The Alchemist" just concluded a run at Tehran's City Theater. But culture no longer plays just to the middle and upper classes.

The infamous slaughterhouse in Tehran's poor southern suburbs was recently converted into the Bahman Center for performing arts. The buildings from which the odor of blood and death once drifted for blocks are now surrounded by vast gardens and adorned with wall-size pastel murals.

The holding area for cattle and sheep is now a theater. Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is scheduled to run next fall, with Islamic dress adaptations and expletive deletions, of course.

Meanwhile, Iran's film industry has something to brag about. Jafar Panahi, director of "The White Balloon," won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last month for best first film. Last year, Iranian movies won 27 international awards.

At the same time, however, 214 Iranian actors and directors petitioned the government this month to curb state control over movie production. They called for "the cancellation or serious reduction in the straitjacket regulations and complicated methods of supervision." Everything--from plots to funding and production methods--requires approval from government agencies.

Restrictions even affect posters. An artist who painted her grandson's teddy bears was recently denied permission to reproduce the work for friends--on grounds that animals do not wear clothes.


Iran's press has always been feisty. But newspapers now openly take potshots at leaders, policies and even each other.

Now, in a country that once reviled foreign culture as "Westoxication," television has also opened up. For every hour of Iranian wrestling, there's an hour of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries.

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