National Geographic : 1999 Jul
"In Iran no single faction can annihilate the competition;' said Yazdi. "This is a very prom ising situation. This is the progress of democ racy. You have a delicate balance of power." On May 23, 1998, the first anniversary of Mohammad Khatami's election, the soft spoken president and tens of thousands of his supporters-most of them young, many of them women-took part in a rally unlike any seen in Tehran in the two decades of the ayatollahs' rule. This time no one burned Uncle Sam in effigy. Instead the marchers flowed down Vali-ye-Asr street under the shade of the plane trees calling for an end IRAN: TESTING THE WATERS OF REFORM In Shiraz, famous for its gardens,Ayatollah MajdeddinMahallatiearns respect not with proclamationsbut with charitableprojects like orphanages.Iraniansvalue such practicalpiety and hopefor a newv flowering of tolerance. to the religious regime's stranglehold on power. "The enemy of our society is prejudice and monopoly," shouted a line of young women in long black chadors. Demonstrators carried banners reading "Freedom of the Press," "The Military Should Be Reformed," "Freedom of Thought Is Everybody's Right." Onlookers stood on balconies and in shop doorways, many of them nodding or smiling in approval. As I hustled alongside the rows of marchers, listening to the chanting and taking in the expressions of hope and excitement on the demonstrators' faces, I was reminded of the pro-democracy, anti-communist marches I had witnessed in Moscow in the waning years of the Soviet Union. The marchers converged on the Friday Prayer pavilion at Tehran University, a place where Iran's revolutionary leaders have tradi tionally spit fire and led chants of "Death to America." Khatami, dressed in a light gray robe, black loafers, and the black turban that marks him as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, faced a crowd that spilled out from under the pavilion and onto nearby side walks and streets. For more than five minutes his supporters whistled and cheered and pumped their fists in the air. At last Khatami succeeded in quieting them. "The future of religion is that it has to cope with freedom; otherwise it has no future," he told the crowd. "If religion confronts freedom, then religion will suffer." As he continued speaking, a small group began chanting "Death to America!" They were soon drowned out by louder chants of "Death to Monopoly!" For a moment Khatami stood quietly, the late afternoon sun filtering in golden shafts onto the speaker's platform. Then he uttered a remark that silenced every body. "I prefer," said the President of Iran, "to talk about life, not death." [ What does Iran's future hold? Share your thoughts online at www. nationalgeographic.com/ngm/9907.Also tune in to "Iran: Behind the Veil," airing July 28 on National Geographic EXPLORER.