TEHRAN — At Mahdi Vosochi's garage in the heart of Tehran, festooned with pictures of American and European sports cars, the men in greasy overalls have more on their minds than engines and transmissions.
These days, the talk often turns to politics--and whether President Mohammad Khatami will prevail in his struggle against conservatives and succeed in bringing more freedom to their country.
Against the backdrop of a slow minuet between Iran and the United States over resuming cultural ties, many people are also counting on Khatami's achieving improved economic relations with the West--including the U.S.
"We need their technology. We need to have a relationship based on justice and mutual interest. It's good for them, and it's good for us," said Vosochi, 50, whose attachment to U.S. know-how shows in the loving care he lavishes on his car: a baby-blue Camaro he bought before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Mechanic Mohammed Ramazani, a 26-year-old who is engaged to be married, agreed that it is important for Iran to be open to America and for Iranians to have more freedom generally.
"What's wrong with that? I am for having relations with everyone, as long as it's fair," he said. Before, "we didn't have a relationship [with the U.S.] based on mutual respect. But we should not decide our future based on past bad experiences."
He said that young people, including him, ought to be given "a chance to do what they want to do--to work, to live and be happy, and not be afraid of anyone or any eyes watching them all the time."
Ties With West Bring Popularity
On one hand, Khatami's willingness to seek economic ties with the West is an important element of his overwhelming popularity in a country facing an economic decline and hoping for a higher standard of living. On the other, there is a fear that the West, and particularly the United States, is not responding quickly enough with concrete steps of its own.
According to the president's supporters, one key way that U.S. policymakers could help would be to drop objections to making Iran the main pipeline route for the fast-developing oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea.
"It would be a very positive gesture. Iran's main concern about the United States is that the U.S. does not care at all about Iran's interests," said Iranian oil industry watcher Bijan Khajehpour.
"That would catch the attention of people here," agreed political scientist Hadi Semati, who added that "Iran would be in a very difficult position" if it did not reciprocate.
In an address to the nation last month marking his first anniversary in office, Khatami unveiled a broad economic program calling for better conditions for foreign investors, increased privatization and a reduction in red tape. He didn't, however, go into detail on how he would attain these goals.
The long-awaited speech followed attacks on Khatami by conservative newspapers that said the president has been moving quickly on expanding political freedoms at the expense of attending to festering economic problems. Khatami has been under increasing fire from the conservatives--enduring the corruption prosecution of his top political ally, Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, and the ouster of a key Cabinet member by the hard-line parliament.
The conservative criticism does not appear to have caught on with the general public, more than 70% of whom still enthusiastically support Khatami, according to opinion polls. But there is no denying that the Iranian economy is sick and needs help.
The country is suffering from stagflation--with annual growth estimated at only 1% while inflation is estimated at 25%. Falling oil prices this year have hurt the government budget drastically, and the state is struggling to maintain heavy subsidies on fuel, food and other goods as part of the Islamic system of "social justice."
Youth unemployment is particularly acute in this country of 67 million people, more than half of whom are younger than 20. In the first years of the Islamic Revolution two decades ago, Iranians were encouraged to have large families, creating a baby boom. Now, up to 1 million of these Iranian boomers will be reaching working age each year--and the economy at most can create 500,000 jobs annually.
Political Change to Bolster Business
All this is frightening for the authorities and is forcing the political changes, in the opinion of one analyst.
"The regime has realized the economic and demographic pressures that exist, and they realize the only way to deal with the pressures without collapsing is to open up," said Khajehpour, the oil industry analyst.
In other words, political change is needed so that foreign investors will have the confidence to come into the country and private businesses can flourish in a less restrictive environment.