ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In Tehran last week, an artist was painting a giant portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, the revered revolutionary leader who overthrew the shah almost a quarter of a century ago. The artist and his colleagues worked quickly. They had done this many times before, and were proud they can finish a big painting like this in two hours or less. They're among a small group of people who make a living preparing the huge murals that loom over the streets of Tehran.
Many of the images extol martyrdom in war. Here, Khomeini, who died in 1989, praises a boy who pulled the pin on his grenade and dove under an Iraqi tank, sacrificing himself during the terrible war between Iraq and Iran 20 years ago. But this painting had a softer feel, reflecting some softening in the Islamic Revolution since Ayatollah Khomeini's death, and especially since the election of reformist Pres. Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Khatami had promised to promote the rule of law, and build a more open society free from what he called the "superstition and fanaticism" of the right. The president spoke about what is at stake here at a rally near Tehran last week.
PRESIDENT MOHAMMAD KHATAMI (Translated ): In Iran, we are having a tremendous experience in building religious democracy. Today, if this model becomes successful, it will keep other countries from using the excuse of imposing democracy on Islamic and non-Islamic nations in order to drain their natural resources. We must protect this model. We must pay the price.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And a heavy price it has been. Reformist leader Saaed Hajjarian, for example, was shot and disabled shortly after he helped manage Pres. Khatami's first presidential campaign. Hajjarian had revealed in his newspaper that undercover agents in the intelligence ministry, where he had once been a deputy minister, were murdering intellectuals considered a threat to conservative rule. And more recently, a popular university professor was arrested, giving rise to large student demonstrations, because he questioned the clergy's divine right to rule. The professor was sentenced to death, but as the student demonstrations grew, the sentence was suspended, and is now on appeal. There is a fierce struggle here over what kind of Islamic democracy Iran is constructing-- over how broad or limited it will be.
EBRAHIM YAZDI: The road to democracy in Iran is not paved. We have our own ups and downs.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ebrahim Yazdi, who was Ayatollah Khomeini's first foreign minister, is director of the freedom movement of Iran, an outlawed reformist group. He got a Ph.D. in the United States, and taught at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston for many years. He is currently under indictment for "acting against the security of the state," and has been questioned by revolutionary tribunals 46 times since returning from the United States last year after surgery for cancer. Yet he insists the political situation here is improving.
EBRAHIM YAZDI: Well, by any standard, Iran is more democratic than any other state in our neighborhood, and, also, Iran has gone through a historical revolution. Then, look back, when September 11 was... New York was attacked. Many Iranians, in the streets, they took initiatives. They observed a vigil by lighting the candles in the streets.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about your own personal case? You've been charged with acting against the state. Could you go to prison soon?
EBRAHIM YAZDI: This is what they wanted, but, you know, to have power is not always equal to be able to use the power. I refer to all of it as a sign of a new happening in Iran. We are getting closer and closer to a turning point in our own recent history.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You were taken in. You've been questioned many, many times in the past year because you've been charged with being a three state. How can you then say there's an improvement in the chances of democracy here?
EBRAHIM YAZDI: The political situation is in a sort of standstill. It's a dead end. Every faction tries to sabotage the other one. Every political faction tries to paralyze the other one-- reformists against the conservatives, conservatives against the reformists. But, however, they haven't been able to do that one. They have failed to do that one, not because the conservatives, they don't have enough power-- because the circumstances don't permit them to use all the power that they have.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Conservatives can't use all the power they have, Yazdi said, because they have recognized that too much repression-- of student demonstrations, for example-- undermines support for their Islamic rule. He said that explains the openings that have occurred since 1997 when Khatami became president, like the relatively freer press and the vigorous debate about the proper mix of Islam and democracy. For example, though Yazdi's freedom movement is outlawed, it was permitted for the first time ever to present candidates for municipal elections last month. In past presidential and parliamentary votes, the Council of Guardians, a government body dominated by conservative clergy, had arbitrarily disqualified many reformist candidates. But municipal elections are controlled by a committee of parliament, which is dominated by reformists, and some people from Yazdi's party were allowed to run. No one was elected, Yazdi said, because the party permitted to openly campaign.
EBRAHIM YAZDI: In Iran, there is a serious debate concerning these new issues. And more and more people, they are learning how to cope with the situation. More and more people, they are accepting these basic concepts and incorporating it within our own system-- the participatory kind of government, the equality of man and woman as far as political rights are concerned. And these are things that are now developing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I asked Javad Larijani, deputy chief justice of Iran, why Yazdi's freedom movement was outlawed.
JAVAD LARIJANI: They hesitate to formally endorse the constitution. I am not saying they should believe each word of the constitution, but they should put their loyalty, in terms of application and action, in the constitution.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yazdi insisted his group is committed to obeying the constitution, though they believe the power of the supreme leader, the post held by Ayatollah Khomeini, should be limited. President Khatami has sent two bills to parliament that would cut some of the powers of the more authoritarian branches of government, and enhance the clout of the elected president. There has been vigorous debate on the bills, with heated argument and many amendments, and on Wednesday, one of the bills passed. But officials close to supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini have indicated they will oppose the bills ever becoming law. Aides to Pres. Khatami said he may call a referendum or even resign if his bills are blocked, so a showdown between reformists and hard-liners may come soon. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a close ally of Pres. Khatami, is a vice president of Iran.
VICE PRES. MOHAMMAD ALI ABTAHI ( Translated ): The Iranian reality imposes many problems on the political process here. But I believe the trend and pace of democratization has been good. If you look at the West, it took 400 years to reach democracy. We have had 2,500 years of monarchy. But we have to continue the pace of reform, because if we don't, we will face two dangers, civil war or absolute dictatorship, and these are both worse than what we have now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Reformists lost and conservatives won the municipal elections last month in almost every part of the country. Turnout was very low, especially among those who had supported Pres. Khatami before. Javad Larijani was pleased.
JAVAD LARIJANI: In this election, it was a great victory for our political group.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Of course the opposition says they couldn't accomplish their promises because the conservatives here blocked them.
JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, this is democracy. I mean, if somebody wins, he should not expect the opposition to put red carpet for them. I mean, if democracy is democracy, then there is competition everywhere.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But for many Iranians, and student activists in particular, a democracy in which a favorite professor can be arrested and sentenced to death for something he said is too limited, and many students have withdrawn from the Khatami coalition, and are pressing for more and faster change. The young are crucial in Iran. An estimated 65 percent of the population is under 25. Many feel despair over the lack of opportunities here.
WOMAN ON STREET (Translated): I don't see any future for myself here at all, because life here is futile.
WOMAN ON STREET (Translated): I don't make enough money to support myself. I don't have a house, a car-- all the necessities that exist in other countries.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: At the rally last week, the president recognized that his supporters may have lost heart because the pace of change has been too slow. He said he was concerned the low turnout in the municipal elections showed that the Islamic Republic wasn't responding to the people's deepest needs. This is the political context in Iran at the moment the United States is threatening to invade Iraq next door, and people are wondering what consequences that might have here.
EBRAHIM YAZDI: Many of us, we are concerned that when the United States starts the operation, that might be the time for the irrational conservatives to attack the reform movement, to completely wipe out them. But I don't think that will take place, because the situation in Iran is very critical. One wrong move by irrational conservatives may disintegrate everything, and nobody will be able to put them together again.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some have said that the conservatives here might take advantage of the war to stop the reformist project. What do you think of that?
VICE PRES. MOHAMMAD ALI ABTAHI ( Translated ): Even without having a war, there are plenty of pressures already.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And so Iranians are waiting to see what the next American moves will be, and what they will mean here.