Tug of War to Win Iran's Youths Anniversary of Islamic Revolution Shows How Conservatives, Reformistsare Wooing Young People

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With Iran's Islamic revolution now 20 years in the past, a young generation has arisen in Iran that doesn't see the 1979 events the same way as their elders. And with young people making up about half of Iran's population, Iran's leaders have taken notice.

Now both sides - reformists, including President Mohamed Khatami, who has a long history of support among the youth, and hard-liners advocating strict Islamic rule - are trying to woo this young generation.

"The clergy feel they are losing ground. They counted on popular support because in the past they had a close link with the masses, but they misjudged that popularity," says Ibrahim Yazdi, an opposition leader today who was chosen by supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 to be Iran's foreign minister. At a Tehran sports hall Tuesday, 12,000 schoolchildren listened to Mr. Khatami. "Poisonous winds are blowing inside and outside the country and enemies are attempting to separate you from the Islamic Revolution," local newspapers quoted him as saying. "The youth played the most important part in the last presidential election.... Today, the revolution and the system must trust the youths' potential." Hanging over the students was a banner quoting Ayatollah Khomeini: "With your power, youth, this country must be reformed." Watershed election Khatami's landslide election victory in 1997 tapped into dissatisfaction and garnered almost total support among women and young voters. He has called for fostering a "civil society" based on the "rule of law," loosening up strict Islamic social restrictions, and possibly reopening Iran to the West. Indeed, Khatami has just made plans to make the first trip by an Iranian president to Western Europe since the 1979 revolution. Iran's foreign minister announced Wednesday that Khatami will visit France this spring. But Khatami's election may have raised hopes of change to almost impossible levels, Iranians say. Khatami's reform promises are seen to have been thwarted by hard-liners who suggest that the young should spend more time in the mosque. Many youths, meanwhile, are increasingly fascinated by Western culture. Compounding Iran's difficulties is the faltering economy, which is staggering under the lowest oil prices in years. There is also widespread corruption and an impenetrable bureaucracy. "The oil crisis means that any hope of improvement must be postponed for two to three years," says a Western diplomat. "The feeling of dissatisfaction could send people into the street." These conditions are the backdrop for the revolution's 20th anniversary - harking back to when Western influence in Iran was snuffed out and the despised US-backed shah of Iran was overthrown. …

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