Tensions are rising in Iran. After more than 25 years under a conservative regime, there is a sense on the streets that sometime soon, things are going to change. It’s something these people have longed for but, in the current global climate, are now unsure they want. The one thing they learnt from revolution is that change isn’t always for the better.
Iranians have been living life under the veil of tough restrictions from a government which has used the nation’s religious backbone as a means of control. They live in a divided society where it is illegal for men and women to work, study or celebrate together. Bars, nightclubs and virtually any form of public entertainment are outlawed. Western music is banned.
The newspapers and television stations that do exist are state-run, so it’s virtually impossible for an average citizen to access unbiased coverage from foreign news agencies. The internet is vigilantly controlled: Iranian expats in Los Angeles provide a news service through illegal cable, but it’s rarely accessible to the lower class and those who watch it at home risk having their entire family thrown in jail.
In the northern suburbs of capital Tehran, an illegal mixed celebration is taking place in the basement of an apartment block. A young woman sings with a three-piece band through a small amplifier as party-goers enjoy a rare evening together. They are breaking the rules, but this is an opportunity for a group of friends to literally let their hair down. The dresses are low-cut and the heels are high. To celebrate like this in a heavily populated borough is a big risk, but as the music reverberates out onto the streets, most know they can probably bribe authorities when they arrive.
It has become a way of life in Iran. Upstairs in a quiet kitchen, one man drinks from a bottle of black market vodka and tells me how different life was before the 1979 revolution which led to Iran becoming an Islamic Republic under the dictatorship of Ayatollah Khomenei.
We could go out on the streets with a girl on our arm, drink and stay out all night and never be bothered,” he says. “There is an entire generation which has grown up without these simple pleasures. Now we live double lives.
“How we live in our homes is completely different to what you see on the outside and if we continue to teach our generations these double standards, what hope have we for the future?”
It’s the same generation of young men who’ll approach you on the streets of virtually any Iranian city. They don’t want money or to sell you anything. They simply want to practise their English and get an insight into what life is like outside these borders. The questions most always revolve around Western entertainment, the opposite sex and how Iran is perceived in the outside world. Most are shocked by the answer.
“It is so sad for me,” says Hamed, a 20-year-old student in Esfahan. “So many people have little idea of life outside Iran, but then, neither does the world seem to understand this is a nation of normal people, misrepresented by its government.”
Many Iranians believe the regime has used the deeply religious traditions of Islam as a noose around its people. To this end, Iranians are not only losing faith in their right to freedom of choice but also, some argue, Islam itself.
“We respect Islam,” says one man on the streets of Shiraz. “But for a growing majority it has no relevance in our lives anymore. After everything we’ve been through, sometimes I think Allah has forgotten Iran altogether.”
Iran recently agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment programme – a tentative step in the right direction in its relationship with the West – but what Iranians fear most is that lack of cooperation in the future will inevitably lead to more sanctions or even a US-led confrontation.
America has long advocated a ‘regime change’ from the ruling Ayatollah, but as much as these people hate living under such conservative restrictions, the thought of losing their livelihood altogether scares them even more.
It’s probably the greatest realisation for any visitor to a country like this. Despite the differences in culture and religion, Iran, like Iraq before it, still operates as a normal, structured society. Families live and work. Husbands wash their cars on Saturdays and wives go shopping. And behind closed doors, families entertain all the aspects of life that have been outlawed by a ruthless regime.
Iranians seem divided over the Allied role in the Middle East. Most agree the decision to bring down Saddam in neighbouring Iraq was overdue, but they say no foresight was given to the effects of the occupation on Iraqi people. It’s not something they’d ever wish on Iran.
And when you consider their hatred towards the US for its stance on Israel, it’s little wonder most Iranians hiss at the thought of American intervention.
This is a nation of people who have already lived through bloodshed. The Iran-Iraq War, which raged from 1980 to 1988, killed more than 600,000 Iranians. In towns and cities across the country, murals depicting the martyrs of war serve as a constant reminder of a brutal campaign which left a generation of families without fathers, sons and brothers.
For visitors, the memorials also signal how far these people will go if they choose to fight.
“When change does come, I hope it does not involve any fighting,” says Hamed. “But the Iranian people will never rely on others – especially America. We won’t let anybody meddle with our lives. Iranians won’t tolerate offence and will fight for their beliefs and for their country until the last moment. And I am one of them.”
Those fortunate enough to build a life for themselves outside Iran are left to contemplate what overthrowing the regime could mean for their families still at home. Anoush moved from Tehran to Istanbul more than three years ago. He says while it was hard being so far away from his family, he would not return to Iran unless things changed for the better.
“It’s a real paradox,” says Anoush, now a hostel manager. “My family and friends are living under a system they hate but they are scared it could be even worse if things were changed.
“The revolution taught us that as a nation we don’t always get what we want if the government is overthrown. Sometimes I wish there was no oil in our land. Things would have been very different for us.””