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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 August, 2004, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
Iranians consider future of reform

By Lucy Williamson
BBC World Service, Tehran

It was only seven years ago that 70% of Iran's voters turned out to bring the pro-reform president Mohammad Khatami to power. But since then, support for the reform parties has waned and the last time Iran's voters were invited to go to the polls, about half - mostly reformists - stayed at home.

With parliament now in the hands of the conservatives, is the reform movement in Iran in terminal decline?

Mohammad Khatami
The president draws mixed feelings from those who voted for him
The music in Siamak's parents house is quieter than usual. There was a party here last night and he and his friends all have hangovers.

Siamak would like to see more reforms in Iran - more social freedoms, more freedom of speech, more jobs - but he is not looking to President Mohammad Khatami to realise them.

If I showed you a picture of President Khatami, I ask him, what would come to mind?

"Nothing," he answers. "I voted for Khatami three years ago, and I still support the opposition groups in Iran, but Khatami isn't the opposition any more."

He is not the only one to turn away from the president he helped elect. Many of Mr Khatami's former supporters are - like Siamak - joining underground protest groups. Others are turning to social issues like women's rights, but many more are giving up on their demands altogether.

Maryam is studying business administration in Tehran. She also supported Mr Khatami when he first became president, but now she has turned away from politics.

"It's interesting for me how Khatami can create hate and create love," she says, during a long wait in Tehran's gridlocked traffic.

"When I was at university, I really loved him and I worked so hard for his campaign.

"But now, when I think about him, I hate him. I don't know when people will trust politicians again. Khatami broke many things."

'Balance needed'

Iran's most important reform party, Hezb-e Mosharekat, is holding its annual conference when I arrive in Tehran. Posters shout slogans - Women's Participation Increases Democracy, says one - but the reform parties are having trouble getting their supporters to participate at all.

Elahe Kollaie, a member of Hezb-e Mosharekat, says she is aware that many in Iran are saying Mr Khatami - and his party - are finished.

Anti-government protests, June 2003
Some say students are less radical than a few years ago
"I see the situation, but it's important to build confidence," she says.

"There must be a balanced relationship between the people and the political system. If the system cannot offer suitable answers to people's demands, they will try to change the political system."

Across town from the parliament lives someone who is trying to do just that - Maryam's brother.

To see him, I need to use a buzzer and get through two doors. He is more security-conscious than most Iranians, but he has had a few unwanted visits from the security forces in his time and has spent some of the past few years in jail on charges of inciting Iran's students.

To avoid getting him into any more trouble, we will call him Mahmud.

Until a few years ago, Iran's universities were a focal point for political reform - student groups would blaze onto the streets every now and then to make their voices heard.

Radical student groups still provide one alternative for those disillusioned with the official reform parties but, says Mahmud, the atmosphere on campus is not what it used to be.

"The big change compared to when I was at university is that students aren't ready for self-sacrifice," he says.

"They're not idealistic any more, they don't want to pay a high price - going to jail for example - they just want an easy life.

"At the same time, when their private life isn't compatible with the ruling establishment, then they're prepared to challenge it. They're ready to pay the price for their personal life but not for a communal one."

'Bad things'

Back at his parents' flat, nursing a cup of tea, Siamak says he is not convinced the underground group he belongs to is doing very much at the moment - maybe a few articles, he says, maybe a conference or two.

For him, like many others now, the political is very much about the personal.

Party in Iran
Clothes and parties can be a form of protest in Iran
"We guys, the young generation, we don't need to do something very political. When we're not into doing all the stuff the Islamic Republic wants, it means we want reform."

So having a party is a political act?

"It's not a political act," Siamak says. "But here in Iran right now, it is a political act."

Next to him on the sofa sits his girlfriend Tera, nursing a sore throat after smoking too many cigarettes. She is wearing her favourite T-shirt - sleeveless and white, with red shoulders. Across the chest, in English, is written a slogan: I Do Bad Things.

"What bad things do you do?" I ask her.

"That's the point," she says. "It's challenging - you don't know what a bad thing might be. It could be smoking, it could be sex.

"When you wear this in Iran, it means a lot. People come up to me and say: 'Wow, that's weird, are you saying you're a bad person?'

"And I'm like: 'No! It's good to do bad things sometimes, it's good to be bad'."

For now, the new conservative parliament seems content to swap a little social liberalism for a little political quiet. But with Iran's reformers still looking for change, the question is how long that balance will last.


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