Human Side Of The Axis Of Evil

America may yet decide that Iran is the next Islamic piñata.

The Tehran government helps underwrite Hezbollah and still seems adamant about maintaining its uranium-enrichment program. There’s more than a sneaking suspicion that Iran still seeks to effect a theocratic, Shiite state in neighboring Iraq. And, come to think of it, we’re still awaiting an apology for that hostage-taking incident.

Thus there’s ample reason, according to ongoing White House reasoning, why Iran, officially dubbed a “state sponsor of terrorism,” remains a member in malevolent standing of the Axis of Evil.

And yet, who is Iran – beyond its Persian past and unflattering, contemporary Islamic stereotypes?

A few, pre-Axis years ago (2000) I traveled to Iran and peered beyond the dyspeptic, stern-visaged mullahs and sepulchral, chador-shrouded women. It’s not easy because you also have to transcend Koranic cops, institutionalized anti-Semitism and public executions. Plus awful television, squat toilets and no beer.

Initially you think, what’s not to dislike besides world-class worry beads and nickel-a-liter gas?

But there is also this.

Some Iranians were around when the country was still Persia (1935); most weren’t around for the revolution of 1979. In fact, the median age for its 70 million people is 23. Its youth are the most educated generation in Iran’s history. From ’79 to 1999, the literacy rate went 58% to 82%. Not surprisingly, they seem to want what most people want – a better life.

This generation knows the revolution unshackled Iranians from an authoritarian dynasty, and that Islam was the vehicle. They also know that the anti-Shah revolution was hijacked by the most conservative clerics. These reactionary mullahs, in turn, crafted a constitution delegating ultimate power to a supreme religious leader – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Seyyed Khamenei.

When the opportunity came to popularly elect a president in 1997, a mandate for the relatively reformist, former culture minister Mohammad Khatami resulted. Khatami, who has said for the record that “salvation and freedoms go together,” won 70% of the student-skewed vote and has been re-elected.

Restless students

The students, however, have grown restless for rapid results that Khatami, who does a political high-wire act over a mosh pit of religious hard-liners, hasn’t been able to deliver. They also know that their career prospects are limited by an economy undermined by a bloated, inefficient state sector. They want more republic and less theocracy in the Islamic Republic.

Overall, the Iranian people I met – from motorcycle-and-car clogged Tehran to the sprawling, time-warp bazaars of Shiraz and Isfahan – were uniformly friendly, even gracious, and typically taken aback by an American in their midst. The exception was Qom, the holy city, which doesn’t exactly roll out Persian welcome mats to non-Muslims.

In addition, there were any number of intriguing incongruities.

Upon arrival, one was left to ponder the message in a government tour guide’s boilerplate: “You must remember that there is no alcohol available here. It is forbidden.Not in the hotel. Not in restaurants

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