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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 June 2005, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
Iran's electoral handshake test

By Gavin Esler
BBC, Tehran

Iranians have cast their ballots to elect a successor to reformist President Mohammad Khatami, but assessing the election race itself is not the only way of gauging the political temperature among voters.

Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Former President Rafsanjani has been active in politics for over 40 years

Here is a top tip for travellers to Iran: be careful how you shake hands.

I made a big social gaffe... or perhaps it was a serious political statement. I will let you decide.

I have been spending time with the man nicknamed The Shark, the former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

He is now 70 but desperate to get back his old job as president of the Islamic Republic.

It had taken three months to negotiate an hour of his time for a BBC interview, and the Rafsanjani campaign workers were keen to show me they could run an election with as much skill as any Western politician. They can.

'Figure hugging'

The Rafsanjani supporters were mostly from well-to-do Tehran families, and I was not quite sure what surprised me the most: the hairstyles of the men - stiff and sticking-up with hair gel much like 20-year-olds in Britain - or the changing fashions of the young women.

Iranians casting their ballots
A new dress code has appeared in Tehran

In Iran what is permitted - or tolerated - in women's dress has become a way of taking the political temperature.

The old black shapeless jilbabs and black headscarves, or hijabs, were still in evidence for some - mostly older - women.

But the Rafsanjani campaign workers were dressed as if for a date with plenty of make-up, hijabs well back on the head to show flowing hair, sunglasses perched on top, and the jilbabs now shorter and elegantly tailored.

In some cases they were figure-hugging.

A couple of young women, with trousers cut fashionably to mid-calf and shirt sleeves half-way up their arm, reminded me that just a couple of years ago, religious activists carried cans of black paint to spray the arms of the supposedly un-Islamic shameless hussies of Tehran. But not today.

Things have changed.

Campaign spirit

One older woman asked where I was from. "The BBC," I said.

She looked at me, and then very politely but insistently told me that all the troubles of Iran were caused by the English, the Americans and the Israelis.

Rafsanjani supporters
Rafsanjani supporters use slogans in English and Iranian

"Ah the English," I replied. "Well, I'm Scottish and they've been causing us trouble for years, especially on the football pitch."

There was a flicker of a laugh.

The young Rafsanjani campaign workers plied me with tea and hospitality, stuck bumper stickers on cars, put up posters, and handed out T-shirts with slogans in English - remarkably - tapping into young Iranians' anxieties about unemployment and a corrupt political system.

"Just Work," was one slogan. Another read: "No More Talk."

Bad reaction

The Rafsanjani workers then suggested I might like to see the hi-tech end of the campaign.

She jumped back as if I had slapped her

I was taken to a modern office block where a dozen young workers sent out e-mails and prepared well-produced web pages full of pictures and lively comment.

This is where I met the young woman and the handshake problem. In perfect English she asked if I would like to see the daily blog she prepares for her readers.

"I want to show you the website," she said excitedly, and told me her name. I introduced myself, held out my hand and said: "Pleased to meet you."

She jumped back as if I had slapped her.

"In the Islamic Republic," she lectured me sternly, "it is not permitted."

True, it is not permitted for a man to shake a woman's hand.

Neither of us took offence and we chatted amicably for a while, but when later I told other female students of this encounter they laughed and immediately stretched out their hands in a series of handshakes which - they informed me - was just another rebellion against the unelected mullahs who, no matter how the students may vote, really run the regime.

That, they said, has to change.

Call to action

Anti-Shah Pahlevi demonstration in Tehran, December 1978
Mass demonstrations in 1979 brought about the Islamic republic

Everywhere I went I heard that Iran is on the cusp of a potentially profound political shift.

One Iranian with top level political contacts told me it was like 1978 all over again, the year before the Islamic Revolution which toppled the Shah.

This time, from monarchists to republicans to devout Muslims, appalled at the corruption of some of their supposedly holy leaders, most of the people I met said they wanted change, and they wanted it now.

Mr Rafsanjani told me he could do business with the West if we were ready to do business with him.

With bombs going off in Tehran and on the Iraqi border during my stay, plus demonstrations, arrests, and claims of beatings by the security forces, change will be painful and, I suspect, often violent.

But Persian culture is 2,500 years old. Twenty-six years of the Islamic Republic has been a blink of the eye.

Young Iranians often now call their country Persia again, not Iran, and the future of their Persia rests with those who wished to shake my offered hand.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 June 2005, at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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