Among Iran's hard-liners, little respect for reform-minded
Conservatives, expected to reclaim control of parliament after elections Friday, wield the greatest power in Iran.
In the black-and-white world of Iran's hard-liners, the word "compromise" is not part of the lexicon. The term "enemy" dominates instead, and applies as often to profligate fellow Iranians as to purported American spies.
Mohamad Hussein Azemi, a diehard revolutionary and a city clerk from western Iran, knows how to deal with enemies.
"I want to put a strong fist in the mouths of those who talk rubbish," Mr. Azemi declares. "They are not our brothers. Those who drink alcohol and use drugs - do you think they are human beings?
"I hope they recognize their sins and recommit to the revolution," Azemi says, scoffing at the privileged, often secular lives of Iranians who inhabit a different world and despise clerical rule. "They have the power to choose the right path."
Even among hard-line Iranians at a recent celebration or at Friday prayers, there are shades of gray. Some advocate violence against the "enemy within"; others say rhetorical persuasion is enough. If conservatives reclaim control of parliament after Friday's elections, as expected, new political divisions are likely to emerge between conservative factions. The tough faction will cling to hard-line views, while moderates have signaled intent to address some issues of the popular reform agenda - a recipe for future rightwing clashes.
But bedrock hard-line beliefs - devotion to God and to Islam, and vows to follow Iran's supreme leader to the "last drop of blood" - drive the true believers and wield most power in modern Iran.
The chasm between these parallel worlds could not be greater, or potentially more explosive. For while such believers say their prayers and wish to secure a place in heaven with martyrdom, their counterparts - fed up with years of social restrictions and lack of freedom - flout all rules in protest, with hip-hugging clothes, lipstick, and the deepest disdain.
Both sides in this social and political tug-of-war are convinced they speak for the majority, but hardly recognize or respect how the other half lives.
"They are not reformists - they are all pagans," says Yaghoub Ramazani, a Revolutionary Guard and veteran of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, whose brother died a "martyr" on the battlefield - a fate he says is the "ultimate death in this world," and a price he wishes he could have paid.
"They make no difference to us at all, and their numbers are not as high as you think," says Mr. Ramazani, charging that "immoral" acts of some Iranians "put national security at risk."
"It is our duty to convince [irreverent Iranians] to do good things," says Ramazani, who declined to give his rank or current job. "Maybe we are sad about what they do in their hearts, and tell them - and if they still don't listen, we have to hit them with the impact of a hammer.
"Our law specifies, according to Islam, what to do with them," the strong-featured officer says. "It may be fines, it may be prison, it may be lashings."
A group of like-minded people gather around to listen before prayer time, and began chanting their support in unison. Another man said this was a common view in this strata of Iranian society.
"[Ramazani] reflected the true words in our hearts," said Safar Esfandyareh, a carpenter. "When we have such people in our country, we do not fear the US, the West, or even the reformists."
But violence is not accepted by all who believe in the pillars of sacrifice, martyrdom - and anti-US fervor - that have defined the revolution for 25 years. Reformers could not have made their demands for social change and freedom, and the scale of their majority in this society, any clearer, after giving pro-reform leaders three landslide election victories since 1997.
But hard-liners, using shock-troop tools such as basiji volunteers and Hizbollahi vigilantes to control the streets, as well as the judiciary and unelected hard-line bodies to control the law, have blocked reformists to the point of giving up.
Key reform leaders are boycotting Friday's vote. Tuesday, text messages zipped from cellphone to cellphone among members of Tehran society, warning that "the ballot boxes on Friday are the coffins of freedom. Do not take part in the funeral of freedom."
Alireza Yazdonbash says he doesn't understand such people. "When I see them, I just feel sad and thank God for who I am," says the young unshaven basiji, a student at a school in south Tehran. His mother and father are veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, which was cast by the ruling mullahs at the time as a "sacred" war for Islam.
"[Irreverent Iranians] are on the wrong path, but hitting and arresting people achieves nothing," says Mr. Yazdonbash. Instead, he says he has had success convincing classmates to stop swearing and begin daily prayers, by speaking to them about Iran's martyrs, and his own faith.
A Revolutionary Guard officer strides past, and barks a warning to the basiji, referring to a US journalist with a notebook: "Your enemy is here. Be careful!"
Such warnings can't last, says Yazdonbash, who says, with uncommon candor, that the political balance in Iran is turning away from hard-line dominance.
"People are getting further from God. Too much liberty given to people is corrupting them," he says. "Tehran is a big city; we can't control it all. You can't talk about 'winning' or 'losing,' because everyone is responsible for their own sins.
It's not only reformers who question Iran's regime. Dissent is evident among those who should be the most loyal.
"From the time of Cyrus, Iranians are born with religion," says a junior Revolutionary Guard officer with bright-buttoned epaulets, poking his head into the conversation with the basiji to give a dissenting view. "They can't bear any oppression against them, including religious dictatorship."
"I'm afraid to talk about my real opinion," says another soldier, looking around cautiously to make sure others cannot hear him. "Everyone is tired."
But not all feel that way. Ismail Kurdi says he is as strongly in favor of the revolution as when he helped storm Army barracks and handed out guns to topple the Shah. He speaks of torture of activist friends by the Shah's SAVAK secret police.
"Not everyone is satisfied with the revolution, even among my relatives," says Mr. Kurdi, who brought his wife and three sons to festivities to mark the silver jubilee of the Islamic Republic.
"In Iran there is democracy, which is why the supreme leader says 'anyone who tears my picture in the street, do nothing to him,'" he asserts. "That is the liberty in Iran - I hear people swearing at the leader and president on buses, but they are never arrested."
But the nonbelieving social elite take issue with that definition of freedom, saying they can be detained for showing too much hair in public, much less insulting the leader and Islamic system, a charge applied to several reformists now in prison.
"There are different points of view in the Islamic state, but all support the system," avers Hamid Pourpak, a mullah who teaches theology at a Tehran seminary.
Beyond hard-line circles, that statement is sacrilege to many Iranians - and underscores Iran's social disconnect.
We can help them see the right way," Mr. Pourpak says. "If Islam is presented in the proper manner, they will follow. People [in Iran] are embracing Islam more and more."