By Philip Sherwell in Teheran
June 3, 2001
THE impending election in Iran is likely to be won by the pro-reform president, but many young voters have lost faith in his ability to deliver change. Today's hottest status symbol for young Iranians is a nose job. Maryam, an office secretary from Teheran, has big brown eyes, long eyelashes and an attractive smile. She was always happy with her features - with one exception. She said: "My nose was too big, so I saved up some money and borrowed the rest from my parents to have it done."
After the operation, she proudly walked the city streets - her bandaged nose on display like a badge of honour. The craze for facial realignment is the latest sign of how the country's legions of young people - 60 per cent of the population of 65 million are under 25 - are pursuing their own lives while reformers and conservative clerics struggle for the soul of the Islamic republic.
The political confrontation reaches a new peak at Friday's presidential election, with the incumbent, Mohammed Khatami, heading for a second landslide win on a pro-reform ticket. His victory is unlikely to change much.
The economy is stagnant and Islamic hard-liners around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader and the ultimate source of power in Iran's theocracy, have blocked most of President Khatami's changes and jailed many leading reformers.
His support base is centred on the young, many of whom sought refuge from Teheran's heat and smog last week in mountains north of the city. These are the children of the post-revolution baby boom which followed calls by the late Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for Iranians to produce "soldiers for Islam" amid the war with Iraq.
At one of their favourite mountain haunts, the Cafe of the Seven Pools, few expected a Khatami victory to change their lives. There was more enthusiasm for discussing the merits of surgery to reduce the proportions of the often prominent Persian nose.
In a country where women are required - on pain of the lash - to observe the rules of hejab in public by covering their hair and wearing loose clothing to hide the shape of their bodies, facial appearance is all important. Hence the rush of nose jobs.
A student whose nose was plastered in dressings after an operation said: "Iranian women have beautiful faces, but big noses. I've read that, in the West, women have breast jobs. This is the equivalent for us."
Increasing numbers of young men are also opting for the cosmetic surgery. Reza Barazi, 23, a computer worker, said: "It's the fashion." His friends said they would follow suit if they could afford to. The procedure costs about £700 - a sizeable sum in Iran.
The scene at the Cafe of the Seven Pools looks innocent enough by Western standards: young men and women chatting, sipping soft drinks, as they relax beside a stream. Nearby, a small group are singing a pre-revolution love ballad to a guitar.
Such a sight would have been unthinkable until recently. Officially, women are allowed to be alone only with men who are their husbands or close relatives, but many at the cafe were with boyfriends. Couples in search of greater intimacy scrambled to secluded spots up the mountain. Headscarves were often swept back to reveal more hair than technically allowed (and for a daring few, replaced by sun hats or baseball caps).
The religious police still play cat-and-mouse with courting couples on the mountain, and many young men have stories of being carted off to explain their "inappropriate" behaviour. Such raids are, however, much rarer than they were before President Khatami came to power in 1997.
This apparent easing of social mores is probably little more than a sop to the young to fend off discontent over the stalling of the Khatami reform programme.
For a heady first two years after his election, a newly outspoken media stretched their wings and a diversity of political and social views was tolerated. In 1999, however, the conservative fightback started when Ayatollah Khamenei forbade parliament to discuss a liberal press law. Hard-liners controlling the judiciary and police have in recent months overseen scores of arrests of journalists, student leaders and dissenting clerics.
The past two years have also witnessed an unprecedented brain drain of gifted Iranians who gave up hope of change as Mr Khatami proved unable - or unwilling - to take on his influential opponents. Ayatollah Khomeini remains a dominant political figure, 12 years after his death.
His stern features and Islamic exaltations stare down from towering murals. Placards have been erected across Teheran to mark tomorrow's anniversary of his death. There are no strong conservative challengers among the 10 candidates allowed to compete in the election, and it seems that the current Supreme Leader is happy to see the President stand again to head off the risk of popular unrest.
Mr Khatami's campaign is a muted affair compared with the excitement of 1997. His rivals - who include Ali Fallahian, a former intelligence chief wanted in Germany for his alleged role in the murder of exiled dissidents - are expected to garner a maximum of eight million of a potential 42 million votes. The big unknown is how the apathy factor will affect turnout.
Not all Iranians are pleased with Mr Khatami's limited version of Islamic glasnost. At Teheran's Martyrs' Cemetery, where thousands of victims of the war with Iraq are buried, an old woman tending her son's grave was dismissive. "His reforms have given us drug addicts and bad hejabi [loose women]," she said. "He won't be getting my vote."