Iran's young turn their backs on the revolution and grip of Ayatollahs

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Grey-robed and bearded, the elderly cleric paused at the exit of the plane and the crowd surged forward in ecstasy. They did not realise it, but the millions of Iranians who flooded the streets of Tehran and thronged the airport to greet the returning exile, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were part of a political earthquake that would eventually bring down the most powerful man on earth and shake the world for the next quarter-century.

The revolutionary fervour that gripped Iran in 1979 stunned the world. The CIA spooks and well-dressed foreign businessmen who had haunted Iran's marbled corridors of power for decades were gone. In their place were a motley but triumphant crew of mullahs, thinkers and dissidents.

That November, students besieged the "nest of spies" as they called the American Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of US citizens hostage. President Jimmy Carter ordered a daring rescue operation that humiliatingly failed when two helicopters crashed into the desert floor before even reaching the capital.

He was gone within a year and his successor, President Ronald Reagan, allegedly forged a back-door deal to release the hostages on the day of his inauguration, more than 400 days after they were captured. In Lebanon, the long-running civil war became a new battle front for the Islamic Revolution as Iranian-backed Shia groups made suicide bombing an art form and drove the American military presence out of the country.

The new Islamic Republic prided itself on being a democracy forged in revolution, but freedom of speech and human rights quickly dropped from the agenda amid bloody purges and a social crackdown. As power was passed among the diverse factions of the new revolutionary government, the hanging judge, Sadeq Khalkhali, became the new face of state fear as he gleefully condemned the enemies of his revolution. Royalists and courtiers were strung up in their thousands, "like starlings on a wire", alongside revolutionaries who had backed the wrong ideological horse.

A terrorist campaign gripped the nation as the leftist Mujahedin-e Khalq Organisation bombed and slaughter- ed many of the new Islamic Republic's leading political lights and alienated many of its then numerous supporters. On the streets, piety became the law as conservative dress codes and social relations were rigidly enforced. University students with long hair were forcibly shaved and denounced by revolutionary committees.

Twenty-five years later, the revolution is running out of steam. After a decade of war and a decade of economic decline, Iranians are tired. Yesterday, 100,000 people gathered underneath the Azadi monument in western Tehran to celebrate the anniversary.

But their avowed support for the conservative rulers of Iran is in stark contrast to many of their fellow Iranians, who believe they have again seen the glimmer of democratic hope snuffed out before their eyes.

In 1997, as millions voted for the reformist President Seyyid Mohammed Khatami, a new wave of euphoria swept Iran. It seemed violence could be banished from politics and the voice of the people ring in government again. But in the years since, that turned to disillusionment as change was blocked by an entrenched hard core of unelected conservatives.

Now the reformist movement appears to be dying fast, threatening the creeping liberalisation it struggled to promote. Thousands of reformist candidates have been barred from running in next week's Majlis elections, in what has been described as a parliamentary coup d'état.

Yesterday, President Khatami warned that the Islamic Republic must follow the path of reform or risk being taken over by extremists, who he said resembled the Taliban in Afghanistan. "They oppose freedom and democracy in the name of religion. Their model is a detestable and violent one," he told the mainly conservative crowd during the anniversary rally. But although most Iranians still support the social and political changes at the heart of the reformist agenda, the movement is on the back foot. The conservatives are expected to take back the Majlis after next week's elections, and to seize the presidency in mid-2005. But as another period of conservative rule beckons, the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic has never seemed weaker.

Voter turnout at last year's municipal elections fell below 20 per cent in large cities such as Tehran, a staggeringly small figure in a country where polling booths have drawn more than half of the population for almost every election since the revolution. The conservatives had wanted a show of strength at the anniversary celebrations. But yesterday's crowds were a shadow of those who once thronged here. The fire has gone out of Iran's revolutionary spirit.

A black-bearded conservative in dark glasses said the crowd this year was bigger than before. "Anybody with eyes can see this is the largest demonstration ever," he said, as curious boys nearby talked about Arsenal and Manchester United. Another man said the people had made the revolution and won the war and would turn out for the election to prove the Islamic Republic's strength. But the mood was more countryside carnival than revolutionary rally.

Fundamentally, the Islamic Republic today is very different to when millions took to the streets for the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile in early 1979. Then, less than half the population was literate and more than 60 per cent was rural. Now the population has doubled and the majority are educated city-dwellers. Most are barely adults. The new generation is eager for change, but has shunned the political activism of its forebears.

Apart from occasional demonstrations, attended by a few thousand, there is little sign the young are interested in politics. Instead, the reformist generation is pushing back the boundaries of social acceptability, often taking its cue from the West. Rock music, fast cars, parties and relationships define middle-class Iranians more than religion or revolution.

Falling mosque attendance also suggests that far from inculcating Iranians with religious zeal, the revolution has dampened Iranian enthusiasm. An eminent sociologist and reformist commentator who did not want to be named said: "Before the revolution, there was a strong religious culture, otherwise the revolution would not have been religious. The interesting point is that the present generation does not care who rules, but how."