Courtesy Reuters

The Limits of the Revolution: Changing Iran


I thought I knew what I would find when I arrived in Tehran last spring for the first time. Never a fan of the Islamic revolution, I was not surprised by the sign at the airport that said, "Death to America." In my hotel a banner with similar sentiments waited for me. The next morning a taxi took me down Khalid Islambouli Avenue, named for the assassin of Anwar al-Sadat. It is as creepy as I imagined, I told myself, gritting my teeth. But from then on, the unexpected took over.

Tehran did not look like an old Middle Eastern city. The boulevards were wide and clean, the traffic well regulated. I saw few limousines, few beggars, and scarcely any soldiers. The pedestrians bustled along, as if on important business. Children romped in well-kept parks and playgrounds. Food was plentiful in both outdoor markets and restaurants, and store windows were filled with consumer goods, including pretty dresses, cosmetics, and lacy lingerie. Only the women in chadors seemed incongruous. After a few days in which I rarely heard a muezzin's call, it struck me that Tehran, compared with most Arab cities, was not very distinguishably Islamic.

My first interview was with two political science professors at the Imam Sadeq University, on a campus that was once a branch of the Harvard Business School. The university now has an ayatollah as president and offers a religious curriculum.

The two men, in their late thirties and costumed in tweeds, were Western-educated, but neither seemed uncomfortable being back home. They agreed that the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 had opened the door to a wide-ranging debate--underground for the public but unrestrained among intellectuals--on the legitimacy of the Islamic regime the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established in 1979 after the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Even the mullahs, backbone of the revolution, are examining the validity of Khomeini's claim to absolute clerical power, said the professors. In the classroom, students challenge the notion

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