Tehran Stories

Raymond Whitaker reads the runes of the billboards in Iran's capital where, instead of consumer ads, competing clerics and anti-American slogans vie for attention
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The Independent Online

Tehran is a modern city in many respects, one which has mushroomed to a population of 12 million in recent years, but despite the high-rise buildings and huge traffic jams, something seems to be missing. Finally you realise what it is: there is a curious lack of advertising.

Expensive watches, for some reason, are conspicuous, but the marketing consists purely of displaying the name – "ROLEX" or "EBEL" in big letters. Though there are plenty of billboards, almost all of them carry the faces of clerics or military martyrs from the nine-year war against Iraq. These are almost the only representation of the human form you see anywhere.

On the side of a building, where in New York you would see an ad for Nike or McDonald's, in Tehran you see the Stars and Stripes, with the stripes delineated by falling bombs, and the slogan "Death to America" in English. Whether this is in good taste after 11 September appears not to trouble Iran's Islamic revolutionists.

Iranian politics are not quite so monolithic as this could lead you to think, however. President Mohammad Khatami and a majority of the parliament would like to liberalise, privatise, and end the country's isolation. They would even be prepared to consider normalising relations with America. But they are constantly frustrated by hardline forces such as the Council of Guardians, once the instrument of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and now in the hands of his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Also lurking in the background, and blocking any change, are the ageing revolutionary veterans who ousted the Shah in 1979.

You can decipher some of these political tensions from the hoardings. If they depict Khatami alone, the "sponsor" clearly has democratic leanings; if he is partnered by Ayatollah Khomeini, the late spiritual leader's approval is being implied (probably falsely). For hardliners it is Khamenei all the way, with or without his predecessor. Many billboards have all three, implying a certain hedging of bets, though that means Khatami is outnumbered two to one, which is a pretty accurate reflection of the balance of power.

Something of these contending forces was conveyed by three slogans whitewashed on a dusty hillside near the Afghan border. One said "Death to America"; the second was advice on family planning and the third advertised the wares of the local stoneworks.

I learnt for myself how frustrating Iran's power struggles could be as I sat for hours at a lonely border post, fruitlessly trying to get through to Afghanistan. (The Ministry of Guidance had not given its approval.)

One official seized the opportunity to practise his English, asking whether I knew about "emmell". Once we had established that he was talking about email, he pressed on with the question closest to his heart. "I have received an emmell offering me $3,000," he said. "Have you ever received such a message? Is it for people in America only, or will they really give me the money?" Yes, I replied, I had found many such messages in my in-box, and sadly they were almost certainly not intended for people like him. Often they were from dishonest people who wanted to get your credit-card number and steal your money, or at best to get your details and add them to a junk mailing list in exchange for a tiny chance of winning a prize.

Much of this appeared to pass over the official's head, but he had clearly spent many hours thinking about what he could buy with $3,000 – in Iran, quite a lot. Now the long-held suspicion that it was too good to be true could be suppressed no longer. I left with the uncomfortable feeling that I had helped to cement the belief, in one Iranian at least, that America was indeed the Great Satan.