Iranians Aren't About to Overthrow the Mullahs

Where the heck are the mullahs? And what happened to all those angry young Revolutionary Guards eager to take you hostage—or, at the very least, spit in your face for personally representing the Great Satan? This is the most jarring impression an American caught in the time warp of 1979 has upon landing in today's Tehran, where Islamic fervor has been replaced by Islamic bling. Luxury stores are loaded with jewelry, leather handbags and knockoffs of Western designer brands, and coffee shops and restaurants are crowded late into the night. This is still the Islamic Republic of Iran, of course, so there are no bare shoulders or legs in sight, much less midriffs, even in the summer heat. But many Iranian women have long since cast off their chadors and gone defiantly chic, despite an abortive attempt by the government this past spring to reassert strictures on modesty, when it sent carloads of basij—or young paramilitaries—out to harass females who dared show too much skin or hair. The typical look around town consists of perfect makeup (spread over exquisitely straight noses; cosmetic surgery is a huge business here), faded jeans under form-fitting Islamic "manteaus"—a sort of truncated raincoat that comes to mid-thigh—and colorful silk higabs loosely arrayed over the backs of their heads.

Iranian males, meanwhile, are looking less and less menacing and more and more metrosexual. The younger ones often wear their hair long, which 10 years ago might have provoked a brutal barbering on the street by enraged Islamists. Some of these "Saturday Night Fever" types even sport facial powder and eyeliner (although the police, who are gingerly feeling their way through these changes, did recently issue a directive ordering men not to tweeze their eyebrows). The U.S. Embassy compound that seared itself into the memory of every American nearly 30 years ago—when it was surrounded by wild-eyed radicals—is a tatty relic, and the paint on the DEATH TO USA signs out front has faded. The brown-brick pile is simply ignored by most Iranians as they whiz by on the boulevard.

Beneath the surface, though, one finds that the Islamic revolution is still alive and well. Too well, in fact. Although the revolution has curbed many of its excesses, it's become institutionalized. It is an old, familiar umbrella of oppression that now stays just distant enough to be tolerated, even if it is little loved. The clerics who still control Iran can upset lives at any time, however, and without recourse to legal appeal. Parnaz Azima knows something about this. Azima is an Iranian-American newscaster for Radio Farda, a Persian-language station funded by U.S. government money. When she returned to Tehran a few months ago to visit her ailing 94-year-old mother, she suddenly had her passport seized. Her crime? "Propaganda against the regime," she was told by mysterious interrogators from the Ministry of Intelligence who accused her of being part of George W. Bush's $75 million program to promote democracy inside Iran.

The president's effort, launched more than a year ago, has so far had the opposite effect of what Bush intended. Even though it's made little headway in promoting discontent with the regime, the mullahs have used it to intimidate reformers by tainting them as U.S. collaborators. "All the local democracy [groups] are complaining about it," said Azima, a thin, frail woman wearing a beige manteau and paisley higab, in an interview at her lawyer's office. "They don't want to have contact with me." Azima (who's out on bail) and three other Iranian-Americans who have been detained at Tehran's Evin Prison on similar charges have become causes célèbres back in Washington. But in Tehran no one is rallying for their release.

Such is the paradox of Iran today. After years of turmoil, including mass street protests against the regime in the 1990s, the revolution has adapted. Among the public, political apathy now reigns. Active political opposition to Islamic rule is all but gone. And the current government, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is adopting a rather savvy tactic of letting ordinary people enjoy themselves a bit and, above all, taste the fruits of prosperity. He can afford to do so, sitting on $70 billion to $80 billion in oil revenue a year, which he uses to subsidize Iran's isolated economy (though Ahmadinejad has become widely unpopular for reintroducing state control of private business and driving up inflation). At the same time, his government is permitting less and less political dissent. Radio and TV are totally controlled by the government, and newspapers—which remain quasi independent—were recently confronted with a new, stricter censorship code.

Young Iranians say it's still possible to have a life. As long as one doesn't cross certain known "red lines"—like openly criticizing the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—the mullah state doesn't ruthlessly crush dissent. Instead, the government tries to nitpick and hound offenders out of the political arena. If your newspaper goes a bit over the line—which usually means questioning the clerics—the authorities will ban it for a few months. If you want to run for office but run afoul of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Intelligence or Iran's all-powerful Guardian Council—which ensures Islamic fealty—you won't be arrested in the dead of night and taken to a secret prison. Instead, your application to get on the ballot will just be mysteriously denied.

The success of this oppressive but subtly effective system should give the regime-change advocates in Washington some pause. From the evidence in the streets of Tehran, there is no indication that this is a government or a political system that's ripe for overturning. In fact most Iranians—government officials and opposition figures alike—tend to poke fun at the Bush democracy program. "If the Americans are willing to spend their budget inside [Iran] for the purpose they are pursuing, they should just give the money to us directly," Ali Larijani, the chairman of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told NEWSWEEK with a laugh. "They are just distributing it through the wrong channels."

The sense one gets on the ground that the regime will endure is shared by experts at the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, according to U.S. officials who are familiar with current intelligence reporting and analysis but request anonymity because of the sensitive subject matter. In public testimony to Congress last year, John Negroponte, then the U.S. intelligence czar, noted that "hard-liners have control of all the major branches and institutions of government."

Iran's oil-fueled prosperity tends to undercut another still-prevalent idea in Washington and European capitals: that with yet one more set of U.N. sanctions Iran will give up its nuclear program. Even many reformers who despise Ahmadinejad and his clumsy defiance of international opinion say that's not going to happen. America's confrontational approach to Iran, says S.M.H. Adeli, Iran's former ambassador to London, "has already gone on for three decades, and it hasn't worked. Why should it work now?" U.N. sanctions are shrugged off by most Iranians as a cost of doing business, adding about 6 percent to prices in general.

As if to prove that it isn't about to be cast onto history's ash heap, the old Islamic Republic still reasserts itself spasmodically. Two weeks ago, the world was treated to the familiar images of black-clad religious protesters pelting guests at a British Embassy reception with paint bombs. The idea, again, was to intimidate the many upscale Iranian invitees from associating with the West (it worked: hundreds didn't show up). But Iranians say that what the TV cameras didn't show was the crowds of passersby who went about their daily business, ignoring the orchestrated event. "In other countries, theater is done indoors. Here we do it out on the streets," jokes Mohammadreza Behzadian, head of Tehran's Chamber of Commerce.

So where is Iran headed? Religious conservatives today openly invoke the "China model," whereby the mandarins in Beijing managed to quash political dissent after the Tiananmen Square democracy movement by redirecting the desire for more freedom 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 tamped down 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 weeding out dissenters. Warning to Washington: it seems to be working.