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Things aren't as they seem in Iran

Young tune out official drumbeat

By George Jahn
Associated Press / August 31, 2008
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TEHRAN - They file in slowly, patiently submitting to body searches - men in one line, black-clad, head-scarved women in another. Most are poor, old, or very young, and most are ready for some America-bashing.

It's Friday, the Muslim holy day, and thousands of Iran's faithful are again gathering at Tehran University's main campus for what has become a weekly ritual - the men under a sprawling blue metal canopy that shelters up to 7,000, the women close by but set apart.

The heat is searing and the mood placid. But suddenly, the mullah leading the prayers is gone - and in an instant the atmosphere turns as confrontational as the new message being hurled into the microphone by his belligerent black-bearded replacement.

"America is the greatest Satan of them all!" the stocky firebrand howls. "Down with the US!" comes the response, first from a few, then from the full gathering.

The voices are thunderous, but the faces are curiously emotionless. It's not the first time this crowd has been worked to lash out at Washington, and it won't be the last.

The expressionless faces offer a clue - this is a regular, staged performance, a message from the official Iran, which is only one face of Iran. For all it takes is a scratch in the surface to reveal a surprise in this teeming, smoggy, and chaotic metropolis. The chatter of a myriad of other voices is startling in its defiance of the party line and threatens to drown out the government message of strict Islamic piety and distrust of the West.

Few countries are as important to the United States right now as Iran, and surely few are as little understood.

This country of more than 71 million people boasts of its nuclear program as the crown jewel of its future energy supply, in clear defiance of US fears of nuclear weapons. Iran has also run up smack against the United States in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, as it strives to resurrect its ancient role as a regional power.

Since Islamic firebrand president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over three years ago from a more moderate government, Iran's leaders have been more enthusiastic than ever in preaching hatred of America. Yet at the same time, and in reaction, a more reform-minded public has become contemptuous of the mullahs and clerics, bending when it has to and doing what it wants otherwise.

It seems the more strident the official drumbeat, the more it is tuned out by Tehran's young and better-educated.

In downtown Tehran, images of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution's founding icon, glower from prime outdoor advertising space above slogans proclaiming: "Our Unity leads to the defeat of the Superpowers." A huge mural depicts the Star-Spangled Banner with an Iranian twist; the stars are skulls, and the stripes smoking bomb trails.

But Beemers beckon from other billboards, and at Tehran's upscale Tandis Center indoor mall, Behnom said sales from his perfume business run as high as $150,000 a month.

Much of the fashion focus is youth-driven. In Tehran's sprawling metropolitan area of 9 million, an estimated 60 percent of the population is younger than 25, born after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Most of the hip establishments are in the city's north, home to the better-educated and better off. In the south, many women wear the long, enveloping black chador, and pictures of Khomeini and the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, dominate street murals.

It is there and in the poorer rural areas that the message of strident anti-Americanism and religious fervor has borne the most fruit, and helped carry Ahmadinejad to the presidency. Ahmadinejad was an enthusiastic teenage member of the crowd that besieged the US Embassy 29 years ago at the start of the Islamic revolution. That movement established the clerical theocracy.

Yet beneath its veneer of Iranian normality, the southern sector also offers surprises.

Artur's front is his cramped, dingy body shop, one of four on a weed-infested lot, where the clang of hammers pounding sheet metal makes a hushed conversation nearly impossible even when the topic is best discussed sotto voce.

"Forty-five dollars each," said the thin 50-year-old, who did not want to give his last name. He furtively pulls a bottle of Ukrainian vodka and two bottles of whisky from a blue plastic bag, before plunging them back in and hastily inserting a headlight unit on the car he's working on.

And in a country flush with oil but low on refining capacity, there is a thriving illegal market for gas.

"I do it when I need some extra cash," explains Farouz, a 25-year-old mathematics student, who also asked to be identified only by his first name because what he does is illegal. "I always have my customers, and what I have goes very quickly."

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