The manager of the faded, frozen-in-the-'70s, former Hyatt hotel here has just built a bigger and better beach area for women. They are still segregated from the men by a curtain, as the law requires, but they have been granted an upgrade from what the manager admits was a small, dirty corner of the beach.
In fundamentalist Iran - where contact between unmarried men and women is strictly limited, and women are not allowed to show hair or even the outline of their figures in public - as many as 2.5 million Iranians a year vacation on the Caspian coast, just a few hours' drive north of Tehran.
It will never be Club Med. But Abolgassam Hajihasani, the hearty young buttoned-down manager of what is now named the Caspian Revolutionary Hotel (everyone still calls it the Hyatt), permits himself to hope that the Islamic government might set up foreigners-only vacation zones where the strictures of Islamic law do not apply. Perhaps a husband and wife might swim on the same beach.
"These things are easing up," he says, as his school-age son watches a pirated Steven Seagal videocassette on the office VCR. But, he adds: "There are elements in Iran who will resist."
The question of how much latitude to permit foreign tourists is part of a bigger question that political and religious leaders are debating: In the age of the Internet and satellite TV, how can the Islamic Republic of Iran sustain its special character?
Iran is desperate for the hard currency tourists bring. But purists worry about their corrupting influence and the erosion of Islamic standards that could come with the pursuit of dollars, francs, and marks. Some who are more liberal, including new President Mohammed Khatami, argue that the Islamic path can best survive by embracing prosperity and modern technology.
In downtown Tehran, young women wear jeans and Doc Martens shoes under their loose black robes. But so far, there is only one overcrowded Internet server for access to the World Wide Web.
Perhaps no other industrial country has assumed such a hard stance against the globe-sweeping secular culture and commerce of the West.
The Islamic revolution in 1979 had several objectives. It rejected a tyrannical shah and his hated secret police. It was a defensive maneuver by the powerful traditional merchants, called bazaaris, against the encroachment of corporate capitalism. And it defied the modern world as represented by the United States in order to assert a purely Shiite Islamic alternative.
In the Homa Hotel in Tehran, a Sheraton until the revolution, decorative gold lettering over the main exit in the lobby announces "Down with the USA." Americans are eagerly accepted as guests, however, and dollars are not only accepted but required as payment.
The single Internet server, at the Institute for Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, has only 25 lines. Access is limited, transmission slow, and on-line navigation difficult. But access will inevitably improve, and that is one cause of insecurity. Some conservatives propose that Iran filter pornography and politically unacceptable material from Iranian servers.
In other respects, access to Western culture is already growing. Since shortly after the revolution, Iranians say, men have come around apartment buildings selling pirated Western videotapes, badly dubbed in Farsi. Iran has a thriving popular-movie industry (almost as saturated with violence as American movies). A few foreign action films are shown commercially here, movies that don't violate Iran's restrictions. But few urban Iranians seem to have much trouble getting to see Hollywood movies.
Iran's president, elected in a landslide in May, is a strong advocate of the notion that Islam and modernity go together. His strategy for preventing the global secularism of MTV and "Pulp Fiction" from overwhelming Islamic tradition is for Iran to improve the quality and appeal of its own cultural products - to compete with strength and immunize Iranians from bad influences.
Persians once ruled the world's dominant empire - which stretched from India to modern Turkey and southeastern Europe to Egypt to the Aral Sea in Central Asia. They were approaching Athens when they were turned back at the Greek city of Marathon, and centuries later they were moving on the Roman imperial capital of Constantinople when they were spurned again. In the Middle Ages, under Arab and Turk rulers, Persia produced such luminaries as the astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam.
Modern Iran has largely failed to export its revolution, although this goal remains important to its ideology. In fact, the specter of Iranian fundamentalism strikes fear into political leaders in neighboring countries, especially Azerbaijan, which is the only other country that is predominantly Shiite Muslim. Azerbaijan remains staunchly secular, and Iranian efforts to win hearts and minds have had little impact.
The fundamentalist Taliban militia in neighboring Afghanistan is opposed by Iran, which supports a rival Afghan faction.
Commercially, Iranian trucks bring groceries north to the other Caspian states, and carry some transit goods from the Gulf states. The Iranians compete with the Turks in Turkmenistan for big engineering projects.
Their next big chance to strengthen their commercial ties to their neighbors should be the coming boom in Caspian oil development. Iran is already one of the world's largest oil producers because of its Persian Gulf fields, but its Caspian Sea reserves are estimated as smaller than those of the other four Caspian countries.
The opportunity for Iran lies in its chance to become a transit link. South across Iran is the shortest route from the Caspian oil fields to the open sea. It has major oil terminal facilities on the Gulf and pipelines that already reach to within a hundred miles or so of the Caspian. Already, Kazakstan has shipped 100,000 tons of oil to Iran this year. Iran takes the Kazak oil in the north, then gives Kazak dealers Iranian oil at its southern ports.
These deals will always be small-time compared to oil pipelines, and Iran's role as host of pipelines from the Caspian is sharply limited by the dominant presence of American companies in Kazakstan and Azerbaijan. US laws forbids US companies to deal with Iran, a limitation that applies to any consortium that US companies participate in.
Billions of dollars are being invested in three, and eventually four, pipelines that all avoid Iran.
Not surprisingly, Iran has bitterly opposed the US corporate presence in Caspian oil trade. But the official anti-Americanism seen in billboard slogans, the annual demonstrations at the site of the former US embassy, and popular Islamic action movies, appears to have little conviction left.
One Iranian compares anti-American rhetoric today to the Soviet anti-Americanism of the late Brezhnev era - mostly pro forma.
But a view often heard on the streets is that the US is responsible for nearly everything that happens in the world. Only America can bring about change in Iran, many say. One man, who had lived in the US for six months, argued that the US had even brought about the Islamic revolution, including the hostage crisis at the US embassy.
What about the failed rescue mission with the helicopters stuck in the Iranian desert, he was asked. "I saw those helicopters afterwards," he said. "It looked staged."
* Thursday: Youth rises in Iran.
Photos by Robert Harbison, Staff