Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Saturday, 13 June 2009 12:15 UK

Young Iranians yearn for freedom

Iranian women line up to cast their vote in Isfahan
Many Iranian women appear to have voted for the moderate candidates

Against the backdrop of the Iranian presidential election, Lyse Doucet speaks to young people in the country's second largest city, Isfahan, about their hopes for the future.

At the end of a splendid avenue in Isfahan, laced with fountains and flowers, there stands a bronze statue of an imposing man.

The plaque reads: Ustad Ali Akbar Isfahani, master of architecture, 17th Century. Here is the brilliant designer who made Shah Abbas the Great even greater.

The ruler of the Safavid Empire had summoned Mr Isfahani to tell him of his vision to transform the city of Isfahan into a glorious capital.

Its centrepiece would be a grand square, adorned by magnificent buildings, including the Imam mosque - still regarded as one of the most stunning mosques in the world with its turquoise minarets and exquisite tiles.

It takes your breath away.

But legend has it that Shah Abbas had been an impatient, and indeed, a ruthless man. He wanted his vision completed with haste.

But his architect bravely defied him, insisting you cannot hurry a masterpiece. His wisdom has stood the test of time.

Political carnival

Bronze statue of Ustad Ali Akbar Isfahani
Isfahan has seen an unprecedented sense of election fever

And this week, four centuries on, Mr Isfahani found himself still in the midst of history.

His bronze replica, complete with flowing cloak and knee-high boots, was festooned with green ribbons and a sign around his neck declaring in Farsi "Ahmedi raft" - Ahmedi is gone - a message to Iran's current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And, all around the statue, a political carnival was unfolding.

Iranians of all ages, but mainly young, sporting green hats and t-shirts, green markings on their face, even green eye shadow - the colour of the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

His supporters flooded this elegant avenue at the end of a rally held in Shah Abbas's grand square, transforming, for a moment, his jewel of ancient Persia into a very modern political stage.

Suddenly, next to the statue, I spotted Sara, a young architect I had met the day before, or at least she is trying to be an architect.

She had told me how it has been fine for her to design inside an office, but difficult in Iran's conservative religious culture to supervise projects on site.

"I studied at one of Iran's best universities," she lamented. "But I cannot do everything I want to do. I cannot say everything I want to say."

Hossein Mousavi and his wife
Mousavi and his wife stirred up the political campaign

At this rally, she wore a tunic of pale green. Like all her friends, she has thrown herself into the campaign to elect Mr Mousavi with his promises of change, including more social freedoms.

I asked Sara what would happen if Mr Ahmadinejad returned to power. Her slight frame seemed to wither. "I will sit at home and do nothing," she said.

Changing world

Sara's story is told countless times over by young Iranians buckling under the strictures of the Islamic republic.

More than 10 years ago, students and women were part of a wave of voters who brought to power another reformist President, Mohammad Khatami.

He ruled for two terms but many of his promises never materialised. Many levers of powers were still controlled by conservative forces including Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader who has the last word in this Islamic theocracy.

I love Iran. If we all leave, there won't be enough young people here to build this country
Golnaz

I went to see Mr Khatami in Tehran this week to ask about this disappointment.

He reflected on how he, and the young people of Iran, now understood reform would take time, as well as patience and wisdom.

I put his words to Sara and her cousin Golnaz. "We understand that, our expectations should not be very high," admitted Golnaz.

But Sara has little patience: "I need a revolution," she declared.

For some young Iranians, however, particularly those who live beyond this splendid city and out in the countryside, the 1979 Islamic Revolution still has meaning.

A young doctor - his name is Mahdi - also stopped me in Isfahan to say he backed Mr Ahmadinejad, a strong and simple man, he called him, who understood Iranians' need for spiritual freedom.

But a cry for freedom of another kind is gaining force here - the world is changing and so is the Islamic republic.

Rich traditions

Centuries ago, in Mr Isfahani's time, there was a rhyme in his city - "Isfahan Nesf-e-Jahan", Isfahan is half the world.

But the world of young people like Sara is more complete now. They see it all, on the internet, on their television screens.

Some young Iranians, from wealthier, more educated families, think of leaving for the West - others already have.

Map

And yet, there is a profound and palpable attachment to their home, to their rich traditions and roots.

"I love Iran," declares Golnaz.

"If we all leave, there won't be enough young people here to build this country."

Their rich Persian past is part of Iran's sense of itself, a deep pride in the civilisation built centuries ago, with painstaking care, and patience, by people like Mr Isfahani.

He had a strong sense of just how long it had to take. Iran's 21st century architects are less sure.

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