Playing Make-Believe In Iran

VIDEO GRAB GOOD QUALITY: Iranian, Iran, Youth, Cell Phone, Young Woman
By CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer
"Do you think President Bush will invade our country?" the young Iranian student asked hopefully, peering up from his keyboard in the darkness of a Teheran Internet cafe. "You know it is our great hope. America is the only country strong enough to free us from the mullahs."

I was asked the same question – often wistfully, always seriously – time and again in Iran, even as America's military nightmare unfolded in neighboring Iraq.

This is not a real invitation to U.S. troops. A military invasion of Iran would meet fierce resistance, even from the young. But it is a measure of the anger and helplessness that consumes Iranian youth.

Arash, an engineering student on the eve of graduation, explained the common frustration.

"What are we supposed to do if we want to have fun?", he asked. "To go to parties, to go to discos or bars, to drink or have a girlfriend. It's all a problem here."

Young Iranians, who know they can be reported anytime to the authorities for un-Islamic behavior, feel as if they go through life playacting virtue. On the street and in public places they are supposed to dress and behave with "Islamic modesty" – that is with covered hair and heads for women, covered arms and legs for everyone, no hand holding or touching, no smoking, and no bright colors.

Inside the privacy of their own homes, though, young Iranians are keen to imitate the West and if they have enough money they enjoy the same things: trendy clothes, iPods, the latest DVDs and parties "You have to be a different person in different parts of your life." said Arash. "I'm something else in my home, in my school, in my work place. It's weird."

Students like to point out they're not the only ones pretending. Look at the clerics, they say, who ignore the Muslim values they preach. Everyone knows a dozen jokes about mullahs who are expert at finding Koranic justification for their what would normally be un-Islamic behavior from smoking to eating caviar.

Furthermore, official corruption is rife. Students have to pay bribes to get university places, and to secure good jobs.

The frustration among the young has been building for more than two decades. In 1999, it boiled over into violent student demonstrations that left at least one dead and saw hundreds arrested. There was a small reprise of those demonstrations in 2003, and again they were violently suppressed. The appetite for confrontation has gone.

Newsha, a news photographer who sheds her veil as soon as she leaves Iran on a foreign assignment, said the price of open battle is too high. Young people have backed off and drawn inward.

"We are really not fighters anymore," she told me. "We have to think about our future."

Every year thousands of the brightest young Iranians leave Iran for good. These are the computer specialists, the engineers, the entrepreneurs. By choice, most would head for the United States, but since they are no longer eligible for American visas, they go to Canada, Germany, Sweden and Britain.

"Many of us go abroad to find another life," says Newsha. "Those of us who stay here, we study, we marry ... because we know what happened to the young people who did decide to fight. You know, all of them, they ended up in jail."

Iran's young have also lost faith in peaceful political change. Hopes were high in 1997, when students and young people voted overwhelmingly to elect the moderate cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Khatemi as president.

But Khatemi dragged his feet on liberal reforms, and time after time refused to confront the hardline mullahs. Now he's generally dismissed as a lost cause. This June, there will be presidential elections in Iran. Very few people – especially the young - are expected to vote.

Instead they are biding their time and quietly pushing the limits. They know - and so do the mullahs – that roughly 60 percent of Iranians are under 30 years old. There are not enough Islamic police or jail cells to take them all on.

Inside the American-style Jam-Jam food court in north Teheran, young couples sit eating fast food and eyeing the crowd. Under the revolutionary sign warning women to keep their heads completely covered, a red-haired beauty has let her bright scarf slip far back on her head. Her boyfriend sits across the table stroking her hand.

Every woman in Iran wears a "manteau" – the mandatory over-garment of Islamic modesty. But the manteaus in Jam Jam – short, tight and bright - cover up the female form like gift wrap covers a wine bottle. Even the young women who favor basic black add sunglasses for a look that is more Jackie O chic than pious virtue.

The Jam Jam food court is just one of several implicit no-go zones for the Islamic virtue police. With security guards at the doors of certain shopping malls, cafes and restaurants, customers know they can bend the rules. And it's even easier at home. Islamic enforcers rarely invade private houses, and a bribe of $100 will make sure they stay away. Teheran even has completely illegal but very busy Dial-a-bottle services that will deliver alcohol to the front door.

Not far away from the Jam Jam Food Court, every terminal is busy in the Internet café. This is the new front line in the war between the clerics and the young. It is also where young Iranians reach out to America – to its culture, its news and to email the legions of Iranians who have emigrated.

"The communications revolution is the biggest thing that has happened in recent years," said Mohammed Ali Abtahi. Until last fall, he was one of Iran's vice presidents, but he quit in disgust, unable to work with the intractable hardliners who dominate Iran's Parliament.

Now, he runs a political think tank, and spends hours editing his Web site and corresponding with hundreds of young people who write to him. Abtahi, with a puckish sense of humor, delights in snapping irreverent photos of Iranian public figures with his cell phone camera to post on his Web site. The day we visited, he was especially proud to show off a snap of Iran's nuclear minister picking his nose.

"There are no more borders between countries because of the Internet," he said. "Frontiers are breaking down and people all over the world are starting to think alike. You cannot sit in government and set the rules and tell people how they should react. Our young people are now as well-informed as their Chinese, British and American counterparts."

"Anyone," he added darkly, "who tries to limit such a society will see the ills of his deeds."

But the mullahs are trying to limit it. Last year, the Iranian authorities began policing the Internet more closely and ordered service providers to block thousands of Web sites. They began a campaign to harass and prosecute Iran's most active dissident Web bloggers and put several of them in jail. In one case, the blogger himself had escaped to Germany so they arrested his father as a way of forcing him back.

Web sites run by Iranian opposition often based in the U.S. have the mullahs most rattled. In fact, it is far easier to download pornography from the Web now in Iran than to log onto American-based dissident Web sites, like the ones that carried details of Iran's secret nuclear research program.

It's a cat and mouse game, though. There are plenty of skilled hackers in Iran who can find and disseminate all kinds of forbidden information. That includes information that may, in time, topple the Iranian regime and bring the freedoms young Iranians long for. America, so far unwilling to invade Iran, is counting on it.