First things first: let's get the most ridiculous Western caricatures of Iran out of the way. The capital, Tehran, is no armed camp, ready to do holy war with the Great Satan, who is lately personified by George W. Bush. In fact, in two days here I have seen precisely two Iranian soldiers—one standing on a guard tower, staring lazily out at Mehrabad Airport in the 95-degree heat, the other doing some off-duty shopping in downtown Tehran.
Things here are bustling, to put it mildly. Traffic crowds the streets and boulevards. Luxury-goods stores, frowned upon in the years immediately after the 1979 revolution, stand open and inviting—especially to foreigners, even Americans. Jewelry, leather handbags, knockoffs of Western designer brands—all are available by the boxful. And despite the savage crackdown on dissent being reported widely in the Western media (a headline in The Washington Post last Saturday read "Iran Curtails Freedom in Throwback to 1979"), there is little evidence of it on the streets. The Bassij or local Islamist militia who once haunted so many corners of Tehran, harassing and even detaining women who dared show too much skin under their suffocating black chadors, are still roaming around, but they don't appear to get in people's faces as much. And after an abortive attempt this past spring to reassert strictures enforcing Islamic modesty, the government appears to have let that slide.
In fact, the most striking thing about Iranian women these days is how chic they are. There are no bare shoulders or legs in sight, of course, even in the summer heat. But most women walk around loaded with Islamic bling: faded jeans, perfect makeup (and exquisite noses too: cosmetic surgery is a huge business here), their colorful silk hijabs loosely arrayed over the backs of their heads. Many an Iranian male, meanwhile, has gone metrosexual; the younger ones often wear their hair long, which 20 years ago might have provoked a brutal barbering on the street by angry Islamists. Some of these Travolta types even sport eyeliner.
What's the story? No, it's not that the Iranian revolution is fading away. Quite the contrary. The revolution has gotten so deeply under the skin of this society nearly three decades later that the regime feels, if anything, more relaxed about its unchallenged power than ever. The political opposition is all but gone, and the current government led by the radical Islamist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is adopting a rather savvy tack of letting people enjoy themselves a bit and, above all, make money (no alcohol or drugs, except in the privacy of your own home), despite the rising inflation rate brought on by international sanctions. He's banking on a little capitalism and extra freedoms, in other words, to relieve any urge to revolt. The relaxation comes at a cost, however: less and less political dissent. Radio and TV are totally controlled by the government. The judiciary regularly disqualifies candidates from office with no effective right to appeal. And newspapers were recently confronted with a new, stricter censorship code. Religious conservatives openly invoke the "China model," whereby the mandarins in Beijing managed to quash political dissent after Tiananmen Square by sublimating the impulse for a better life into a booming economy. Here in Iran, the political ferment that appeared in the 1990s, when the reformist president Mohammad Khatami took office, has been dealt with handily with an analogous formula: Ahmadinejad and his "new right" have kept most of the Khatami-era social reforms, and focused most of their ire on political dissenters.
This crackdown is most often accomplished in subtle rather than savage ways. While much of the Western media in recent weeks has focused on the detention of four Iranian-Americans who made the mistake of traveling back to their homeland at a time when the regime is paranoid about Bush's $75 million "democracy promotion" program (seen here as covert regime change), they scarcely provoke much discussion here. Even reformists who poke fun at Ahmadinejad tend to belittle the hue and cry back in Western capitals. "The end result of Bush's program is that a handful of Iranians-Americans are getting arrested," jibes Mohammad Reza Behzadian, former deputy industry minister under Khatami and a vigorous opponent of Ahmadinejad. "That's been basically the only result." Or as a reformist newspaper editor, Mehran Karami, put it to me: "To put just $75 million into a country this size [Iran has 70 million people]. If Bush wants results he'll need to invest tens of billions."
The real crackdown is achieved with a Kafkaesque effectiveness; without explanation, politicians and other opponents the regime dislikes are simply kept from having important official positions. Behzadian, for example, was elected president of the national chamber of commerce (an important post here, representing the booming private sector) in February. But he didn't get the job. "I received the highest number of votes ever," he says. "Then I was disqualified by the government for 'personal qualifications.'" His appeals have simply gone unanswered. End of story. Or take the case of 76-year-old Ebrahim Yazdi, a former foreign minister and currently head of the reformist (but illegal) Freedom Movement of Iran. He sought to celebrate his party's anniversary in recent years—first at its headquarters, which was promptly confiscated, then at a public house, which was infested with tear gas, and finally this year at his own home, which was surrounded by police. When he went to protest politely at the Ministry of Intelligence, contending that these restrictions were "against the constitution," he says, he was simply asked: "Why would you want to have a celebration?" "You're worse than Savak," he told them provocatively, invoking the Shah's secret police. But he and his party suffered no beatings, no arrests; they simply had no celebration. And they're still not allowed to run for office. But more on that later.