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A New Day in Iran?

The regime may inflame Washington, but young Iranians say they admire, of all places, America

Ramin Jahanbegloo, one of Iran’s leading secular intellectuals, agrees. “I am constantly being invited by university students to speak at their events,” he told me over mounds of saffron-flecked rice and turmeric-soaked chicken at a Tehran cafeteria. “Just a few years ago they invited predominantly religious reformers. Now, they want secular democrats.”

In Qom, Iran’s holy city and home of the largest collection of religious seminaries in Iran, I spoke with a shopkeeper who sold religious trinkets and prayer stones just outside the stunning blue-tiled mosque of Hazrat-e-Masoumeh. He was a religious man, he said, and that’s precisely why he felt religion should stay out of politics. “Politics is dirty,” he said. “It only corrupts people.”

I browsed several seminary bookstores in Qom, where I spotted titles ranging from Islamic jurisprudence to Khomeini’s legacy. Abookstore owner told me that the ideas of reformist clergy are much more popular than the pronouncements of conservative mullahs. And translated American self-help books by the likes of motivational guru Anthony Robbins outsell political tracts. But the owner keeps the hottest commodities discreetly in a back corner. There I saw technical texts on sex and female anatomy. He just smiled sheepishly and shrugged his shoulders.

Iran today is at a turning point. Either the Islamic revolution must mellow and embrace political change, or face a reckoning down the road when hard-line clerics come into conflict with the secular, democratic ideals of the younger generation. But though the influence of religion in politics is under assault in Iran, national pride remains a potent force. In a recent poll of dozens of countries published in Foreign Policymagazine, 92 percent of Iranians claimed to be “very proud” of their nationality (compared with 72 percent of Americans).

To get a glimpse of raw Iranian patriotism, a good place to go is a soccer stadium. Back in Tehran, I went to a Germany- Iran exhibition game at the Azadi stadium with my friend Hossein, a veteran of Iran’s brutal 1980-88 war with Iraq, and his sons and brother. The atmosphere gave me a new appreciation for Iran’s reality: a fierce tension between a populace ready for change and a regime so shackled by ideological zeal and anti-American sentiment it can’t compromise.

Hossein, like many Iranians who served in the war, resents America for supporting Iraq in the conflict: Washington provided Saddam Hussein’s regime with satellite images of Iranian troop movements and cities, looked the other way as Iraq used chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers and, in 1983, sent thenbusinessman Donald Rumsfeld as a presidential envoy to Iraq, where he greeted Saddam Hussein with a handshake. But Hossein, who served as a frontline soldier, said he’s willing to forgive and forget “as long as America does not attack Iran.”

In the traffic jam leading to the stadium, young men leaned out of car windows and chanted “Iran! Iran! Iran!” Once inside, several doors to the arena were blocked. Crowds grew antsy, and a few hurled insults at police patrols. When a group of bearded young men—members of the Basij volunteer militia, linked to conservative religious figures—sauntered to the front of the line and passed through the gate, the crowd roared its disapproval. (I saw this frustration again later, when a parking attendant outside the stadium demanded a fee. “You are killing us with your fees!” Hossein’s brother shouted at the man. “Don’t the mullahs have enough money?”)

Finally, the gates flew open and we stampeded into the stadium, clutching Hossein’s young sons by the hands. At halftime, the chairman of the German football federation presented a check to the mayor of Bam, a city in southeastern Iran devastated by an earthquake that killed 30,000 people in 2003. “That will help the mayor pay for his new Benz,” one man near me joked.

Throughout the game, which Germany won, 2-0, large loudspeakers blasted government-approved techno music. The mostly young men filling the 100,000 seats swayed to the beat. Asmall group near us banged on drums. The music stopped, and an announcer recited from the Koran, but most people continued chatting with one another, appearing to ignore the verses. When the music came back on, the crowd cheered.

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