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Iranian youth like new freedom but want jobs
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posted June 13, 2001 10:06
The Boston Globe
By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff
June 11, 2001
TEHRAN - In the rugged foothills of the Alborz Mountains, where Iran's young people often seek refuge from the capital's smog and the Islamic republic's strict social codes, the talk yesterday was of the reelection of Iran's reformist president.
Up where they can breathe freely and talk openly, columns of youths were crisscrossing mountain paths on this holiday marking the birth of the prophet Mohammed and the day the official election returns confirmed that President Mohammad Khatami had won by a landslide.
With more than 65 percent of the country under the age of 25, Iran's youth forms the largest single voting bloc and almost single-handedly delivered Khatami his victory and what has been interpreted as a mandate for reform.
In return, young people expect a lot from him. They want to see more freedom of speech and social reforms, but they want more immediate results on the economy. They want jobs. And many of them are impatient.
Economists express doubt that Khatami will be able to deliver, and analysts here wonder if that will merely result in a youthful disenchantment with the charming cleric or a head-on clash between youth and an aging, conservative religious establishment.
''You feel like you are under pressure that is going to explode down there,'' said Suhela Pahlevan, 24, who is studying accounting, as he stopped in a thin patch of shade and nodded his head toward the northern fringes of the capital below.
''Khatami wants to ease the pressure. ... But the fact is you aren't going to find the job you want. You aren't going to have the freedoms you want. .... So you come up here to take it easy. If you think too hard about it all, you just go crazy.''
In interviews yesterday with young people in North Tehran, a largely wealthy and more secular enclave, and in South Tehran, a poorer, grittier, and more fervently religious side of the capital, it seems the demands on Khatami are increasing.
For youths in South Tehran, it is harder to get to the mountain. Many hang out at an old slaughterhouse converted to a kind of social club, with a library and some open park space.
''More than anything, I want a job,'' said Issa Bahadour, 20, who is studying computer programming. He voted for Khatami.
When asked if he thought he would get the job he wants, Bahadour said, ''No. I don't expect to get a job at all. That's the problem. If things don't get better maybe there will be another revolution. It is possible.''
But Bahadour, eating lemon sorbet as he spoke, doesn't know much about revolution. Like the majority of Iran's 65 million people, he is too young to have any memory of the hardships or excesses of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
This, mixed with a desire for change, has sustained Khatami, but it could also prove his undoing if the conservative clerical hierarchy continues to block reform.
''The young people give him their energy and commitment,'' said Mohammad Hadi Semati, a political scientist at Tehran University. ''But they are also impatient for change. This creates the potential for serious friction if the reform movement stalls.''
A glimpse of this potential came two years ago when hard-line clerics ordered a police raid on a university dormitory, igniting widespread unrest in cities all over Iran. A brutal police crackdown and Khatami's calls for calm brought things under control.
In an interview on election day, Khatami's chief of staff, Mohammed Ali Abtahi, seemed keenly aware of the need to deliver for young people, and just how difficult that will be.
''Employment for the youth is absolutely the most important issue for us to address. We are building the infrastructure for economic improvement. But the youth are funneling into the job market at a very fast pace,'' he said.
That is an understatement. Economists estimate that Khatami will have to create 780,000 new jobs each year over the next four years to have enough employment for young people who finish college. And that level would only mean maintaining the current unemployment rate, which has steadily climbed to an uncomfortable 16 percent.
''It is a near impossibility that he will be able to create these jobs. And the conservatives are not likely to try to help him do it,'' said Fariborz Raisdana, one of Iran's top economists and political commentators.
He pointed out that last year Khatami had his best year of job creation in four years and even then was only able to create 380,000 jobs.
''The upper-middle class will probably find jobs for their kids, but the lower classes will stagnate and suffer, and I think Khatami should be very careful of this and the anger it could create,'' added Raisdana.
Siamak Namazi, director of a firm that helps companies recruit young people, warned that Khatami must also pay attention to a brain drain in Iran.
''It's not just unemployment, it is underemployment. We need good jobs. We need jobs that keep the elite and educated happy or else they are going to continue leaving Iran. And we can't afford to lose them,'' said Namazi.
Beyond the pressing issue of jobs, Khatami's core constituency has also been, as young people often are, quick to forget the gains made. They often forget just how much the erudite Khatami has tried to change the harsh and puritanical face of the Islamic Republic.
One teenage boy with a pony tail who was complaining about the slow pace of reform was asked what would have happened to him four years ago if he wore his hair that way. He answered, ''I guess I would have been arrested.''
Young couples openly hold hands, although only in certain parts of Tehran. There are fewer raids by police on private parties, where if alcohol or Western pop music is found, the people in attendance can be arrested and flogged. As one 30-something Iranian put it, ''at our parties we used to hear the doorbell and everyone froze in fear. Now we hear the doorbell and we figure someone is showing up late.''
Women, who are especially strong supporters of Khatami's, are allowed to ride bicycles. They are starting to paint their nails and wear lipstick. Many women are slowly repositioning their headscarves - which they are forced to wear under Islamic law - further back on their heads to reveal more of their hair.
Such changes in lifestyle seem incremental, but the older generation that lived through Iran's post-revolutionary years under the disapproving eyes of the mullahs, or clerics, understands just what Khatami has accomplished, or is trying to accomplish.
Yet many young people still feel constrained by the Islamic strictures.
For some this causes despair, even depression, which is widespread among Iranian youth, according to youth counselors and psychologists.
Up in the hidden mountain paths of the Alborz, these sentiments of despair could be heard.
Siavash, a civil engineer in his early 20s who asked that his last name not be used for fear he could be arrested, said, ''Mr. Khatami was only a safety valve. He seduced us and didn't accomplish much. I want freedom and I want a good job. They both depend on each other. I think in the next four years we are in for more of the same. He will continue doing what he is doing, which is nothing. We can't blame you in America anymore, or the first world.
''That's why I stay up here,'' he said, motioning to a ridge that he was heading for. ''When I come down, it starts all over again.''
All times are PT (US)
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