In Foreign Parts: Passions that drive backlash against heavy hand of the mullahs

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Change in Iran cannot come quickly enough for Amir and his girlfriend, Shiva. "It's horrible to be a young person in love here," says Amir, 20,well-dressed and sporting a fashionable goatee beard.

Across the road is a large, quiet garden - home to a distinguished building, known locally as the "den of spies". For Iran's ruling mullahs, the walled compound of the American embassy, closed since Islamic students overran it in 1979, is the focal point of their paranoia.

If Iran is exhibit A of George Bush's axis of evil, then the embassy is a visible reminder of America's meddling.

The Islamic zeal which brought revolution to Iran in 1979 and installed an Islamic theocracy has dimmed today. And the nation's youth, the so-called "third generation of the revolution" has little time for the mullahs. For more than a week young Iranians have demonstrated against the mullahs' rule.

"We're always scared when we're out together," says Amir. "Sometimes it's an agent, sometimes normal people tell us to stop holding hands. Even our parents don't like it because they're traditional."

His colleague, Armin, agrees. "I like to play guitar," says the 23-year-old engineering student. "But if there is somewhere you can play, they won't let you," he says. "I like Pink Floyd and Seventies rock, but if you don't play traditional music, the authorities will stop you."

Armin is worried about the future. There are few jobs for engineers in Iran, and unemployment is at 15 per cent. But his most immediate concern is the ban on his band, the Epidotes, playing at the university.

Armin says the gap between the aspirations of young people and the ideas of the government is growing, and he believes change is inevitable. But for all his desire for reform, Armin did not attend the demonstrations that have taken place every night for the past week.

Azadeh, also 23, went every night. "I want freedom. I don't want the royals to come back, but I want democracy," she says. Like many young people, she is angry that President Mohammad Khatami has been unable to effect significant change. Despite having two popular mandates at successive elections, his presidency has failed to shift the balance of power between elected politicians and appointed religious jurists.

Azadeh, a psychology student, believes greater personal freedoms and a better economy hinge on getting the politics right.

The basij, a conservative grassroots militia, is active in social control, and it is not unusual for students to be accosted by basijis if their behaviour is seen to be immoral. During the demonstrations, some basij have acted as the shock troops for the hardliners. The movement leaders claim ignorance, but students say they have recognised individual basij members among their attackers.

Basijis believe in the revolution. Usually drawn from the poorest rung of society, it has given them a little authority, a little money and a little respect. It is now giving the violently inclined a chance to run riot. "The basijis at university always treat us very badly," says Azadeh. "They join the movement because it gives them some power over us."

Ironically, it has been the use of violence that has pricked domestic feeling. "The difference between before the demonstrations and now is that there is a clear line drawn between the thugs and the people," says Ali, a businessman and journalist. On a night recently, when 80 people were injured, the basij were called off and arrest warrants were issued for some of the ringleaders. For the time being, it seems, the students' desire for change seems to be having an effect.

Older heads are more cautious. Mohammed, a businessman who was active in the 1979 revolution, wants change but not at any price: "We know all about revolutions. Another one is the last thing we want."