The Mullahs Vs. Modernization

The news anchor on official Iranian TV broke the recent story of seven dead in a train crash outside Teheran. There was a bright side, though: a fatal train accident the same day in Gary, Ind. "Even in America," said the anchor, "trains collide." Observed a local viewer, "It's like they're keeping score: 'It's Iran 1, America 1'."

Poised uneasily between the lure of modernization and the forces of tradition, Iran is its own worst enemy when it comes to making peace with the West. Iranian officials busily court Western investment, offering inducements such as free-trade zones to make it easier for foreign businessmen to visit. Then a prosecutor who presides over secret Islamic courts announces that a German businessman from a machine-tool company will be hanged as a spy. The Tehran Times, which often reflects the views of Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, publishes conciliatory editorials after Bill Clinton's Inauguration. Then Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounces America "until the end of time."

The victory of the moderates in last May's Majlis elections prompted wide expectation of a Teheran Spring. With most of the radicals voted out, Rafsanjani announced plans for sweeping economic reforms and reined in the Revolutionary Guards and the troublesome komitehs, a cross between Town Watch groups and lynch mobs. He renounced the export of violence and brokered the final release of American hostages. But the conservatives in the new Parliament proved as intransigent as the radicals, and little changed. Economic reforms stalled as Rafsanjani remained stuck with his old cabinet. The mullahs created a new form of morals police, who roam the streets making sure teenagers aren't listening to popular music or women aren't showing any hair. Iran even became one of the few countries ever to boot out the International Red Cross. "Our expectations on where this country was going were dashed over the last year, in almost every way," said a Western diplomat. "We were just wrong. But then so were many Iranians."

Iranian hopes of opening up and modernizing are held in an ideological headlock. Consider Salman Rushdie. A few weeks ago aides to Rafsanjani were telling diplomats that they hoped the Rushdie issue would fade away. Then Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, once the designated successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, criticized Khamenei for allowing the Islamic revolution to be usurped by the country's more secular-minded political leaders. Khamenei responded by renewing the fatwa calling for Rushdie's execution. Then last week two thirds of the "moderate" new Majlis ratified the death sentence. "The Iranians have been given a lot of leeway in the hope that they would cease to have a terrorist agenda," Rushdie told The Scotsman newspaper recently. "It hasn't worked."

Just as Rushdie-bashing is a way to demonstrate theological purity, America-bashing is how Iranian officials validate their revolutionary credentials. Fourteen years later, the takeover of the American Embassy is still celebrated with parades. This year the faded slogans on the abandoned embassy compound were repainted. In theology class, schoolchildren are taught that America and Europe are enemies of Islam. "Death to America" is chanted in schools so often it almost sounds like the Persian pledge of allegiance. "Neither those who hear it nor those who say it take it seriously any longer," says Kurosh Zaimi, a prominent political scientist and entrepreneur. Although Zaimi has a pivotal role in building Iran's new free-trade zone in Sirjan, talk like that has on occasion acquainted him with the inside of the mullahs' jails. In official circles, no one dares not to denounce America.

And that's too bad for Iran, however the mullahs keep score. Iran desperately needs Western investment, technology and trade. The country's economy is a mess, despite its tremendous oil reserves. A fifth of the work force is unemployed, while inflation is far higher than the 20 percent the government admits. Sidelined while the allies thumped Iraq, Iran since then hasn't even been able to make the payments on its ambitious arms purchases. It should be a regional power; instead, it's a slumbering giant. That term once was used to describe China, before Deng Xiaoping's wake-up call. Even some mullahs see an analogy there. But China woke up, at least economically, and Rafsanjani is no Deng Xiaoping. Iran just seems to be tossing and turning in its revolutionary sleep.