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Thursday, 17 February, 2000, 17:20 GMT
Change in the air in Iran

People hold up posters of Mohammad Khatami Khatami came to power promising reforms

By world affairs editor John Simpson

Just for a moment it felt like the old days: the heat, the excitement, the chanting, the bits of torn paper thrown in the air and falling like snow.

It took me a moment to remember that most of these noisy, excitable students, ranged in their hundreds around a basketball court and waiting for their political heroes to address them, were not even born 21 years ago when Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution overthrew the Shah and the Islamic Republic was established.

Pro-Khatami rally Young people are excited at the prospect of change
That was a lot of lives and a lot of pain ago. And yet these young people, packed on benches, scarcely remembered any of it: the executions and exile of the royalist supporters; the vicious bombing campaign of the extreme left and the resulting paranoid clampdown; Saddam Hussein's invasion of the weak new republic and the eight-year war with its million casualties.

And ever since Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, there has been the un-ending battle between conservatives and liberals which has brought Iran to a state of gridlock. It is a state where no-one can get anything done, the economy cannot flourish and any initiative is always blocked by the other side just for the sake of it.

Ready for change

There was a loud bang and everyone jumped - and then laughed. It was just a firecracker. The boys have to sit separately from the girls and since no-one here has ever known anything different, it feels natural to them. The girls too were mainly wearing black chadoors, or hoods, because that is the regulation too and it feels natural to them. The snooper state that the Islamic Republic created in Iran has always had the power to interfere in what they do and what they wear.

Everyone here knows that when Khatami has a parliament that backs him, everything will change
And even if they do not know anything else they know they want to get rid of that.

Which is why they were swaying backwards and forwards on the benches, holding up placards showing a pleasant looking, bespectacled old character wearing a turban, a beard and a faint air of surprise that he should find himself in charge of a country as complex as this.

Mohammad Khatami was elected president of Iran nearly three years ago and even a few days before that election most people thought of him as being just another identikit Muslim cleric. It was only a few days before polling day, in June 1997, that word went round that Khatami wanted to change his country in a big way. As a result, there was a huge turn-out and he won by a landslide: 86% of the vote.

Woman in a chadoor Under Islamic rules, women are required to cover their hair
Ever since, Khatami has been battling against a parliament with a built-in conservative majority. Hence the gridlock. Khatami's opponents have even had his close ally, the mayor of Tehran, jailed on a trumped-up charge.

But everyone here knows that when Khatami has a parliament that backs him, everything will change. He is completely committed to easing the restrictions on every day life and to opening up to the outside world. That is why the young people were chanting the praises of a middle-aged man who looks just like all the others here.

And then something strange happened. The band, which had previously been playing a rather dreadful campaign song about Khatami, suddenly struck up something different. The choir, four girls and eight men in black, double-breasted suits but no ties (ties are a sign of westernisation here) burst out into words I could not properly understand, but which clearly meant something to everyone else.

New freedoms

I looked round at my translator and saw she was in tears. So were one or two other people around us.

"This is the national song from the Shah's time," she said in my ear. "It was banned until a couple of years ago."

The young people loved it. They were swaying and singing along and they erupted in cheers and whistles and showers of little bits of paper when it was over.

How did they know the song after all these years? I suppose it had just gone underground, together with things like holding hands in the park and wearing your hair the length you want and clothes the colour you want. You cannot beat these things out of people forever and you do not make a very happy country if you try.

I have seen quite a lot of revolutions in my time. I have seen entire nations rise up and make themselves free. And yet, in its way, I do not know if I have seen anything that made me feel happier, than a few hundred young middle-class people in a basketball court, celebrating the imminent arrival of the kind of small-scale freedoms that in most other places would seem like a normal part of growing up.

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Full coverage of Iran's landmark elections and the battle for reform

See also:
16 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Iran set for election fight
16 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Campaigning ends in Iran
15 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Countdown to Iran elections
11 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Khatami urges reformist landslide
30 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Poll test for Iran reformists
29 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Iran election short-list cut by 670

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