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Iran: Young People Call For Change

By Charles Recknagel/Homayoun Majd

As reformists and conservatives wrestle over the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran, much of the pressure for change comes from young people under the age of 30. They make up two-thirds of the country's population, have little or no memory of the 1979 Islamic revolution, and often are hard-pressed to find adequate employment. Afshin Molavi, a journalist and writer, recently spent a year traveling around Iran speaking to youths about what they want for the future. He recounted his experiences last week in a talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, attended by RFE/RL's Persian Service. Correspondents Charles Recknagel and Homayoun Majd report.

Prague, 16 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afshin Molavi spent the last part of 1999 and most of 2000 visiting more than 20 cities and villages in Iran and talking to Iranian youth.

He made the trip to research a book about Iran which will appear in the autumn. As he traveled, he wrote regularly from Iran for the "Washington Post," "Business Week," and several other publications.

Molavi said that he found the principal concern of Iranian youths in all segments of society is unemployment. The difficulty of finding a job has increased as large numbers of young Iranians enter the job market each year and strain the ability of the country's inefficient and largely centrally controlled economy to absorb them.

"There are some broad trends which are easily detectable for anyone who travels in Iran except for the willfully blind. One thing is the issue of jobs, because across socio-economic sectors in Iran, among Iranian youth, the issue of jobs is at the top of their list of grievances."

He says the Iranian government estimates it needs to create 800,000 to a million jobs a year in order to accommodate young people entering the market. Up to two-thirds of the population currently is under 30, with half of those under 21.

Molavi says the true unemployment figure is almost impossible to determine. The Iranian government puts it at 16 percent but many independent economists estimate it as closer to 25 percent.

The journalist says that in Iran's professional class, the difficulty of finding an adequate job at home leads many to try to obtain visas to work abroad. He says particularly desired are visas to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, which accept top Iranian graduates in the sciences and medicine.

Molavi says that demands for Canadian visas have become so overwhelming that the embassy in Tehran no longer accepts applications but requires Iranians to make their requests through Canada's embassy in Damascus instead.

He says that has created a curious sight on flights from Tehran to Damascus, which now carry almost as many young Iranians seeking Canadian visas as they do other travelers. He describes the scene this way:

"On the airplane, the Iran Air flight from Tehran to Damascus, the front half of the plane was filled with elderly pilgrims who were headed to a prominent Shi'ia shrine in Damascus. The back half of the plane, the last seven or eight rows, were full of these young economic pilgrims headed to what I call the Canadian embassy shrine in Damascus."

He calls those who qualify for foreign visas the lucky ones. Other young Iranians depart clandestinely, trusting their safety to criminal groups smuggling them to Europe, North America, and Australia.

Such economic pressures have helped fuel demands among many young people for changes in their society. Molavi says these young people can be roughly divided into two camps, those who want political reform and those who want social reform.

"There are broadly two strains of thought which I came across. One are the youth who are politically active, and they tend to be religious reformist youth. And they tend to think of democracy in purely political terms. They tend to think of democracy in terms of freedom of the press, free and fair elections, representative government, independent judiciary [and] civil society."

He continues:

"Equally important, and I would argue even more important, is these youths whom I call social freedoms youths. These think of democracy as the ability to go to a party and to listen to Western pop music, to listen to Iranian pop music, without the authorities cracking down on them. This is an important segment of Iranian youth."

Molavi says that these camps represent different challenges for Iran's conservatives and that the more unpredictable of the two movements is the one for social reforms. That is because authorities are usually well prepared in advance for protests by politically active youth groups, so that when those protests are attacked by hard-line Islamist vigilantes, the police are on hand to control the level of violence.

But protests for social reforms can arise at a moment's notice. He describes them this way:

"It usually starts like this. There is a young man walking with his girl friend. They are walking in a park. One of these hard-line young fellows approaches them and says: Who is this? Is she your sister, is she your cousin, why are you walking with her? And increasingly these young men are more strident and they say: Well, it is none of your business who she is. Words are exchanged, occasionally blows are exchanged."

As friends of both sides gather, street brawls can erupt which in some cases have continued for days.

Molavi says until the widespread unrest of the summer of 1999 -- which began with a crackdown on Tehran students supporting press freedom and grew into riots in most major cities -- the two camps of reformist youth rarely made the same demands. That is because they themselves are from largely different social backgrounds.

The journalist says the students who are politically active tend to come from the traditional middle class, which is associated with bazaar merchants, clerics, or the civil service. In their personal lives, they are socially conservative and religious.

Youth seeking more social freedom are often from a more modern middle class, which is associated with professional skills. They, too, are often religious. But they clash with the strict interpretations of Islam imposed upon them by hard-liners. Molavi says:

"Many members of the modern middle class tell me these people accost us and, by accosting us, somehow pretend that our women, because they don't want to wear the severe 'hejab' [Islamic dress], are somehow loose. They imply that we are somehow irreligious, but that is not the case just because we do not adhere to their social values."

He says that for both camps of reformist youths, the summer of 1999 was a vigorous and heady moment which saw them make common cause in the streets until authorities and hard-line vigilantes cracked down hard. Several people were killed in the unrest.

Molavi says the violence has left Iranian youths who want change now looking for leaders or, as they put it themselves, a hero to direct their movement.

He says that for a while that role was widely ascribed to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who swept into office in 1997 on promises of greater social liberties and press freedom. But a conservative backlash -- including closures of most reformist newspapers and the jailing of many activists -- has changed the mood. Molavi says:

"President Khatami's original promise and, originally, the way he was treated as a rock star and sort of somewhat as a messiah figure, has rapidly dwindled and I think Iranian youth are looking for new heroes to look up to now."

Molavi does not predict where the new heroes may come from. But he says the future could see growing demands for the political debate in Iran to expand.

Until now, the debate has been limited to the religious reformists and conservatives who are inside the Islamic system. It has not included secular nationalists or liberal nationalists, who are considered outside the system.

Now, Molavi says, some youths calling for greater social freedom are beginning to say these more secular voices should be heard too.