"An avalanche is coming!"

As Iranians surge to the polls, a new generation of liberal reformers is expected to be swept into office. But it's not yet time to declare the mullahs powerless.


Vivienne Walt
February 18, 2000 3:30PM (UTC)

As a 20-year-old firebrand, Hamidreza Jalai Pour sat
in his jail cell in 1979, and listened to his fellow
students chanting outside, as they waged their Islamic
revolution on the streets. Since then, he has spent a
second spell in jail -- this time at the hands of the
same revolutionary government he fought to bring to
power.

His three brothers were killed in Iran's long
war with Iraq; his office was bombed by Iraqi forces.
In the past 18 months alone, Jalai Pour, now editor of
one of Iran's 35 daily newspapers, has had three of
his publications shut by the police.

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So, Jalai Pour speaks with the authority of someone
who has seen more turbulent history than most. And
rushing into his office on Friday afternoon, a few
hours before the polls closed in Iran's parliamentary
elections, he declared: "An avalanche is coming! This
is really a new phenomenon."

The rocks from that avalanche have not yet hit the
ground. With about 6,000 candidates, the results from
the handwritten ballots stuffed into cardboard boxes
on Friday could take nearly a week to tally. But
Friday's elections for Iran's 290-seat parliament, or
majlis, already seem likely to transform this
country, with the hardcore conservatives losing their
legislative majority to a dynamic new generation of
liberal reformers.

Millions of Iranians converged on schools, mosques and
even hotel lobbies to vote, in the freest elections
the country has seen in decades. Throughout Friday, a
Muslim holiday, the elections became a family outing,
with generations walking to their neighboring voting
station, tiny children in tow, and grandmothers in
full black chador covering, treading shakily up
stairs, resting on their grandchildren's arms.

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Inside,
the process was near chaos, with children
helping their parents fill out the long ballot form,
listing their pick among 400 candidates running for
Tehran's 30 parliamentary seats. Friends sat on the
floor, debating candidates and swapping the party
candidate lists, which have been scattered on
sidewalks, and passed through car windows, all week.

This has not been an election about candidates,
however. Almost all those running are obscure figures,
and since Iran's ruling mullahs, or clerics, permitted
them just a one-week campaign, only a handful have
emerged as recognizable leaders. Instead, two
personalities have dominated this week's campaign --
and neither one is running: President Muhammad
Khatami, and the far more conservative Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, whose authority is unimpeachable in
Iran.

The painted election banners hanging throughout Tehran
this week proclaim a range of bland election promises:
job opportunities, security and freedom. And since
most parties have adopted the same vague slogans, the
main clue as to who represents what is whether
Khatami's well-known portrait is painted alongside
them. In reality, there is only one issue at stake:
whether to loosen the rigid grip of Islamic law, as
Khatami has attempted to do, against the ayatollah's
will. Just one question pervades every discussion in
Tehran's streets and restaurants, and in the city's
sprawling bazaar: Whose side are you on?

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"We are three generations, so we all think about
different things," said Sara Asadi, 19, who stood in a
pink nylon coat, next to her mother and grandmother,
both dressed in black floor-length coats. "I've only
heard about the revolution, while my mother and
grandmother lived through it," she said. "Now, they
are thinking about their social security, and I am
thinking about how we are allowed to dress."

Does that mean her mother and grandmother will vote
for the religious conservatives, I ask? At that
moment, her mother shakes her head in furious denial,
and whispers in my ear: "Khatami! Khatami!"

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With the first reformist parliament almost
a
certainty, Khatami could have a real shot
at a
sweeping reform program, without being
blocked by the
legislators.

But it is not yet time to bury the Islamic
revolution.

Almost every law passes through the 12
mullahs
appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei to sit on
Iran's
Guardian Council. That key body has veto
powers,
including over crucial issues that the new
parliament
might want to pass later this year, like
allowing
unmarried men and women to touch each other
in public,
or trying to establish ties with the United
States.

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The council vetted every candidate who
registered for
these elections, and banned about 500 from
running,
including the newspaper editor, Jalai Pour.
"They said
I was not loyal enough to Islam," he said,
"but the
real reason was, I was attacking the
conservatives,
and selling 300,000 newspapers a day."

What the younger, hipper legislators might
confront
once they start their new jobs in
parliament could be
found Friday afternoon, in the courtyard of
Tehran
University. There, tens of thousands of
people
gathered on the ground in the sun, for the
weekly
outdoor prayer session.

In an hour-long mix of inspirational
lecturing and a
pep rally, Ayatollah Muhammad Yazdi, one of
the
Guardian Council's senior members, stirred
the
audience with shouts of "Death to USA! Down
with USA!"
The chanting rose through the crowd in a
crescendo,
amplified through the loudspeakers strung
along
the campus grounds and down the
neighborhood streets.

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"Clinton has said the Guardian Council is
against the
reformers," shouted Yazdi, and then
addressed President
Clinton directly: "You think you still have
the power
over the world? That period is past! Since
the
revolution, no one has allowed foreigners
to come
interfere in Iran's affairs!" he said,
while the crowd
picked up the chant again: "Death to USA!
Down with
USA!"

Whatever the changes in Iran, said Yazdi,
the death
order, or religious fatwa, against writer
Salman
Rushdie would remain in place. Since it was
ordered by
the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, "it
cannot be
broken," he said, "and I hope it will be
carried out."

But aside from the fiery talk, political
analysts in
Tehran all agree that the conservatives are
on the
defensive, cornered by a huge new wave
against
fundamentalism, which brought Khatami to
power in
1997, and threw out several conservative
city
council members last year.

Partly, a deep disillusionment has arisen
due to
unemployment and inflation. More crucial,
Iran's
population is among the youngest in the
world: 45
percent of Iranians are younger than 14,
and most
people have no memory of the revolution.
Instead, they
are wired to the Internet, and are among
the Middle
East's most educated and literate youth --
ironically,
a byproduct of the Islamic government's
public
programs.

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Perhaps Khatami's clearest achievement in
three years
is to allow Iran's scores of newspapers --
including
four English-language Tehran dailies -- to
criticize
the government in ways that were
unimaginable a few
years ago. And since many Tehranis read
several
newspapers a day, editors like Jalai Pour
became key
players in Friday's elections, even though
several
were barred from running for office.

"The fact that we are publishing today, on
election
day, is a sign that things have changed,"
said Jalai
Pour. "Four months ago, I did not think we
would make
it."

Jalai Pour's first newspaper, Jame-ah, was
shut by the
government in late 1998, after Jalai Pour
printed a
front-page photograph showing a group of
men
exercising in a Tehran park. "They said we
were
showing them dancing." The staff regrouped
immediately, and published an identical
paper under
another name. Last September, Jalai Pour
arrived for
work to find police, who shut the paper and
arrested
him, holding him for one month on security
charges.

Again, the staff published a replacement
paper, which
lasted a few months, until it was closed by
the
police. The current version -- a 20-page
hard-hitting
critique of the conservatives -- has
survived four
months. But Jalai Pour is taking no
chances. He has
started a "spare tire" newspaper, as he
calls it: a
financial daily, which he doubts the
conservatives
will target, and which can step in to
replace his main
newspaper, if it is shut.

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"You have to understand that this is still
a big
change," he says. "If you had come here
even two years
ago, I would not even dare shake your hand.
That would
be forbidden," he says, and then sees me to
the door,
and stretches out his hand.


Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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