TEHRAN, Iran – There is a Persian saying that, roughly translated, goes: Once you’ve been near death, the flu isn’t so bad.
Perhaps it is such wisdom that Iranians use now to cope with the frustrations of living in a theocracy.
Islamic law, as applied here, forbids pleasures taken for granted in the West: casual contact between men and women, the consumption of alcohol (although smoking, treated as a near mortal sin in the United States, is practiced without penalty), dancing, racy movies, financial loans that carry interest charges, and open debate on topics like religion.
Still, Iranians who lived through much or part of the 27 years since a revolution ousted the shah and brought religious zealots to power appreciate the relative moderation they now enjoy in comparison with only a few years ago. Hands and heads are no longer lopped off publicly, as they were at the behest of Attorney General Sadeq Khalkhali during the early days of the theocracy. Public fights and public displays of affection are both punishable by stiff fines, a sentence that one chastened lovebird says “is more painful than their damned whips.”
And for all his conservative-sounding rhetoric, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has allowed enforcement of social regulations to go lax. The tasks of humiliating women who let too much hair peek out from their headscarves, or ankle show beneath their Capri pants, has been transferred from the once-dreaded Revolutionary Guards to regular municipal police, who appear to appreciate the sight as much as anyone.
Young couples in uptown Tehran, as the capital’s wealthiest section is known, stroll the streets hand in hand. Do they dare do more?
“Sex is easy in Iran, probably easier than in America,” says a young man with slicked-back hair who has visited the United States. Once behind the doors of their homes, the hajibs, or headscarves, come off, and the liquor bottles come out. While there are some voluntary followers, for millions of others in Iran, adherence to Islamic law is a matter of public appearance, not a real lifestyle.
While Japanese and German cars sell for nearly double their U.S. prices, homemade models of Peugeot and Kia, notably called the Pride, sell for $6,000. Not surprisingly, car sales have skyrocketed, reaching an estimated 900,000 last year. As a result, the wide boulevards and ancient alleys of Tehran, whose metropolitan area has a population of 20 million, are choked with cars that run on 10-cent-a-gallon gasoline that still contains lead. Pollution levels rival those of Mexico City, generally considered the most polluted city on earth.
Housing remains a problem, both in Tehran and other major cities. A one-bedroom apartment in the capital can cost $500,000, well beyond the means of the average Iranian. Since mortgages are un-Islamic, buyers must pay cash. President Ahmadinejad recently proclaimed an interest-free loan program for potential homebuyers on a limited budget that dodges the religious objections of clerics. But the amounts offered are paltry in comparison with the inflated real estate prices.
What few people besides the chattering classes in Tehran spend much time worrying about is Iran’s development of a nuclear program based on enrichment of uranium that could also be used to make nuclear bombs.
“Nobody wants a nuclear war, but when Ahmadinejad sticks his finger in the Americans’ eye, people say, ‘That’s our boy,’” says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, an associate professor of political science at Tehran University and a longtime friend of the president. “They don’t think Iran will use its uranium to make a bomb, not even to use on Israel. And they don’t think the Americans will dare to attack us unless they can prove we’ve got a bomb.”
To that end, the nuclear program that has become the center of an international crisis is a perverse point of pride to many Iranians, even those who do not support Ahmadinejad. It is proof that Iran has become a power both in the region and the world that can neither be bullied nor ignored.
More than a few Iranians would toast their president with champagne for his bald-faced defiance of the world’s superpower, if doing so too openly wouldn’t land them in one of his prisons.