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Thursday, November 20, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Close-up
An 18-hour ride along Iran's rocky road reveals nation in transition

By Steve Coll; Reuters
The Washington Post

HENGHAMEH FAHIMI / AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Iranian women chant slogans in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4 to mark the anniversary of the storming of the compound and seizure of American hostages in 1979.
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BISTOUN, Iran — Among the least of its many problems, Iran's isolated and bloated bureaucracy struggles with English spelling. A battered tourist sign declares, "Historical Remainds of Bistoun," and sure enough, around the side of a cliff looms an ancient bas-relief, a chiseled king whose hand stretches to the divine while his foot grinds the neck of a prostrate rebel. Several well-dressed Iranian travelers stare up at this tableau.

Their talk turns easily to politics and war.

"Iranians — especially young people — have a strong feeling. They think maybe America will help them change the system," offers Ayoub Adeli, an engineering manager from Tehran. But he doubts this will occur; perhaps there has been enough upheaval already. "I think everything will happen from within Iran, inside the system."

Overweight trucks honk and belch below on the highway from Baghdad to Tehran. A hundred miles to the west lies Iraq, a country in ferment because the state has been overthrown. To the northeast lies the seat of an Iranian government no less in ferment over how to retain its grip.

An 18-hour drive from Baghdad to Tehran is a ride among people in flux, some lifted by hope and faith, some cowed by threats.

Nahid is the youngest traveler among us. Thirty-one and unemployed, she says she seethes at the Iranian mullahs who shadow her ambitions, dictating about lipstick, jobs and television channels.

To one side of the highway's gated border, American military commanders seek amid rising violence to re-create Iraq as a democracy from the top down. Across a sparse frontier, a season of debate grips Iran: How should the country manage its estrangement from the United States? How should it reply to encroaching U.S. power and ideas?

A mass of motion

Along the highway between, thousands of people have been set newly in motion. Devout Iranian pilgrims and clerics trek to Iraqi Shiite shrines previously beyond reach. Displaced Kurds flood into the borderlands to reclaim lost property. Traders, smugglers, political agents and tribal chieftains slide back and forth in search of money and influence.

Out of Baghdad, the road unfurls at dawn across a half-lit sandy plain dotted with date palms. Dented Datsun and Toyota mini-pickups zip and weave in a high-speed ballet of near-miss. Some haul single cows strapped precariously in their tiny beds. Others carry chador-clad female field hands collected at roadside day-labor markets.

Behind lies the sprawling Iraqi capital, its occupied center sprouting with razor wire and crossed by protective blast walls. Ahead lies fertile Diyala province, a Sunni Arab flatland long favored by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's patronage machine. The highway is wide and smooth here. Electric lines crisscross walled villages.

Eighty miles from Baghdad, beyond the last U.S. checkpoint, beyond the last convoys of gun-swinging Bradley armored personnel carriers, the road rises toward Iran across an arid dunescape.

The Kurds step in

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has recently deployed an Iraqi border force here to check for possible terrorist infiltrators from Iran. The force includes scores of Kurds recruited from friendly U.S.-allied militias to the north. Their new Nissan double-cab trucks are stenciled "Border Patrol" in freshly painted English.

In hastily erected shacks along the road they control sit the beneficiaries of their nascent regime: Kurdish farmers who have left impoverished villages for new lives as highway shopkeepers, hoping to sell candy bars and cans of warm Pepsi to recent busloads of Shiite pilgrims rolling from Iran.

The bare hills are strewn with detritus from the long, decimating stalemate of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. Berms and mounds from abandoned Iraqi gun emplacements stretch to the horizon, as if this were a vast suburb of prairie dogs. For two decades it was nearly impossible for ordinary Iraqis to travel to Iran, or even to approach the border. It was equally difficult for Iranians to reach Iraq.

From the late 1990s, Saddam authorized a few controlled bus tours for Iranian pilgrims to visit the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, but mainly he managed the area as a vast security zone, enforced by interlocking networks of Iraqi militia and local informers. Now Kurdish return, Shiite revival and the retreat of Saddam's forces define the region.

Besides the 2,000 approved Iranian pilgrims who pour through the area's sole official border checkpoint each week, thousands more are crossing to Iraq illegally on foot. At least 200 have been killed by land mines or died of exposure along these pathways since the summer, the Tehran Times has reported.

Through the door

A black steel gate divides Iraq from the Iranian border village of Khosravi. At 10:30 a.m., a long line of anxious Iranian pilgrims snakes behind it — young families toting Nike duffels, old women shuffling in pairs, turbaned religious scholars in dry-cleaned robes barking on cellphones. They press toward the narrow door into Iraq. Kurdish border guards call names from a clipboard and wave the chosen toward a row of Hyundai buses bound for Najaf.

"Amer-I-kee good," the Iranian gatekeeper finally announces after two hours, and through the gate we squeeze, across to a cavernous, airport-style terminal where polite policemen dip each of my 10 fingers into thick black ink and rub the fingerprints — twice — onto colonial-style registries.

Iranian security forces run checkpoints and drive in mobile patrols to enforce a 12-mile exclusion zone running east, off-limits to the general public.

Memorials to the 1980s war with Iraq festoon Iran's border provinces. Billboards on the outskirts of every small town depict the painted faces of young war dead. Whitewashed graves and battered tanks hoisted onto concrete pedestals are still freshly dabbed in revolutionary slogans: "Death to the Traitors," or "Martyrs Are the Heart of History."

STEVE COLL / THE WASHINGTON POST
Iraqi Kurds have set up a shop along a stretch of Iraqi highway newly patrolled by U.S.-equipped Kurdish border guards.
Yet the vernacular of Islamic revolutionary nationalism holds little appeal to many younger Iranians. Along the highway — and hundreds of miles from the elite, international neighborhoods of Tehran — they talk instead of jobs, fashion, romantic relationships and the attractions of a more tolerant Islam.

Iran's clerics now run the country mainly to take care of their own, complains Reza, a clean-shaven security guard who works in the southwest mountains. "Those mullahs have sunk some roots with the majority of the people," he says. "They give them jobs, privileges, houses." He and his friends support the urban university students who have tried off and on since 1999 to demonstrate for political change in Iran, but who more recently have been subdued by mass arrests.

Reza doubts the students can succeed. The rural poor in his area who depend on government handouts "think that if the mullahs go away, they will lose everything. And the rest of the country is so poor they can't think about this kind of thing. It's hard just to take care of a family."

An arc of frustrations

Later on the road, Nahid, the unemployed young woman, traces the arc of her frustrations. She earned a college degree in Persian literature, then was rejected for a high-school teaching job because the mullahs in her provincial city said she was on a list of girls who wore too much makeup on campus. She remembers the exact words the Islamic official spoke when he rejected her: "We don't need people like you." She had gone to the job interview with her mother, who scolded her afterward for bringing this on herself.

"You feel sinful," Nahid says. "I think they want to give you this feeling." In early afternoon, she invites me to her family's small apartment to break my drive. It is clean but modest, three or four rooms lit with a fluorescent bulb. Government TV news plays on a small set in the corner.

Nahid's family wants their landlord to get a satellite dish that can pick up international channels. The dishes are in bloom across Iran, illegal on paper but lately tolerated by the government, part of a modest loosening of social rules in response to the student protests.

The government anchors talk over footage from CNN depicting violence in Iraq, then air sound bites from Democratic candidates in the United States, who criticize the Bush administration's policies.

"I think the majority of the young are like me," Nahid says, meaning they are fed up with their government. "Yet we have no good opinion about this situation in Iraq. Maybe before, we thought it would be good to have the United States come in. But now, we look at these pictures from Iraq, and it looks terrible. So we think, maybe it is just better to be patient and hope for change from within — or tolerate the system we have.

"All of our lives have been spent in wars, revolution, changes. When you think about this, you prefer silence."

Sixty miles short of Tehran, sputtering in the darkness, my boxy Iranian car-for-hire runs low on gas. The first station the driver tries is closed. Then the second. In a panic he pulls down the highway to a third. We are on a six-lane superhighway in the heart of urban Iran, northwest of Karaj, and still there is no gas. Truckers and tourists have clustered at the shuttered station, desperate. A policeman turns up and is set upon by the drivers. There is no gas between here and Tehran, he announces.

Maybe, just maybe, he confides, if you drive back three miles in the opposite direction, off the highway in a small town, you might find one station with some gas left. An angry convoy sets forth across dusty lanes, down through a culvert, twisting and turning off-road, trying to find the village. There it is: a huge pileup of vehicles, more than a hundred idling in line before the pump islands and jockeying for position like demolition-derby drivers.

Oil-exporting Iran is a gasoline importer. Its price subsidies (25 cents a gallon at the pump) are designed to quell popular discontent, but they encourage overconsumption and mass smuggling. Its refining capacity is inadequate to meet demand, battered by war and crimped by closed-market policies.

The great majority of Iran's economy is state-run, unable to create jobs for its swelling population. There is no consensus within the government about what to do.

It is nearly midnight when the lights of the capital at last appear, sparkling across a vast valley.

Show and tell

The next morning Tehran celebrates the 24th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy by militant students on Nov. 4, 1979. "Death to America," echo the familiar megaphone chants. Amid the modest crowd of bused-in demonstrators outside the former embassy — mainly young students joyous to be free from a day of classes — it all feels a bit phoned-in. The chanting is dim and desultory. A press badge identifies me in Persian as an American. Protesters read the badge and laugh, then pose for snapshots.

A few blocks away the real student radicals live behind university campus gates guarded by crisply dressed plainclothes police. The press badge does not impress the cops: no entry.

A passing student carries a message to the local chapter of the Office for Fostering Unity, one of the most radical of the splintered movements. Ten minutes later Sadjad Ghoroghi, 23, a marine engineering major, saunters through the gates and leads the way to a private office nearby.

He and a colleague lay out their platform: "completely confronting the system in certain areas," as Ghoroghi puts it. They seek by nonviolent means a full electoral democracy in Iran, separation of religion and politics, respect for human rights and a free-market economy. Many of their members have been charged with political crimes or jailed, some beaten or tortured, Ghoroghi says.

One of his colleagues, Mehdi Habibi, is appearing in court across town on this day. He and 10 colleagues at universities across Iran wrote a letter to the United Nations outlining their government's systematic human-rights violations and demanding international help. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, they issued a statement declaring that outside force was sometimes necessary to overthrow dictatorship.

Last June, thousands of students took to the streets in protest against government policies. But the numbers did not shake the system, and many were later arrested. The demonstrations have waned. Some Iranians say that by loosening social rules and cracking down on student leaders, the clerics are gaining the upper hand.

Ghoroghi sees the religious establishment he opposes as increasingly pragmatic. "They will bow to changes and developments — they're not like the Taliban," he says. "These people are political. They want to stay in power." Yet there are hard-core militants in the security services and Islamic societies who gird the establishment, he says, "people with whom you can never hold a dialogue."

As for the Americans and their program of regional change, he says the future of the Iranian student movement may be dependent on the course of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Many Iranian students remain inspired by U.S. and European ideas. Yet the impact of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq "very much depends on how well the United States will be able to establish a democratic system in Iraq and be responsive to the demands of the Iraqi people," he says.

"If the U.S. fails in Iraq, it may change the attitudes of the Iranian populace."

Refugees cross border

TEHRAN, Iran — A small convoy of refugees crossed into Iraq from Iran yesterday to test the route for repatriating about 200,000 people, a U.N. spokesman said.

The pilot convoy of 69 people traveled from a camp near the southwest Iranian city of Ahvaz to return to the area around the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

Many southern Iraqi Shiite Muslims fled Saddam Hussein's crackdown on an uprising after the 1991 Gulf War. This was the first official return of refugees to Iraq from the Islamic republic since this year's U.S.-led war to oust Saddam.

The United Nations had hoped to repatriate 70,000 to 80,000 refugees by the end of the year, but the program was frozen because of the bombing of the U.N. office in Baghdad and other security fears.


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