Hopeful City, Buoyed by Campaign Vows, Waits for Change in Iran

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TEHRAN -- During his presidential election campaign, Hassan Rouhani excited Iranians' expectations by promising to get suffocating Western sanctions lifted and revive the economy while increasing personal freedoms: opening up access to the Internet and taking the much-hated morality police off the streets, among other things.

Their hopes soared once again with President Rouhani's visit to New York, when he spoke of détente with the West and took a historic phone call from President Obama, ending a taboo on direct talks between the nations. And yet again when the first round of talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program ended this week on a resoundingly upbeat note.

Four months after Mr. Rouhani's election and two months after his installation as president, people here in the capital are still waiting for the great changes that most of them are longing for. But even if their immediate hopes have been dampened, most here say they are relieved to see the last of the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his confrontational policies, and are savoring an emotion that had been absent for years: hope.

"We Iranians are optimistic people," said Maryam Salehi, 48, an art teacher in a poor area in south Tehran. "We may wait for 10 years for something and nothing happens, but still we keep on waiting. What else can we do?"

There have been a few promising signs. More than 90 political prisoners were released, though for the most part their names have not been announced. Those who are known to be free, like the prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, are staying out of sight, avoiding interviews or refusing to take public stands on the issues they once went to jail for.

"Most of them were eligible for release, as they had passed half of their sentences," said one former prisoner who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Before you can go out you have to sign a form promising you will be a good citizen, or return to prison."

A particularly antediluvian university president was fired. With the advent of autumn and cooler temperatures, the morality police are less noticeable but still present at central crossroads and shopping centers, warning and arresting women who show too much hair or wear clothes that are too tight or revealing.

The new culture minister, Ali Jannati, son of a prominent conservative cleric, complained Tuesday to his staff that it should be more lenient when censoring books, saying, "Some would have censored the Koran if the holy book hadn't been handed down to them by God."

The formerly independent House of Cinema, an organization supporting film that was closed under Mr. Ahmadinejad, is to be reopened. But even that small step comes with a twist -- it will now be government-controlled, and board members will have to sign papers that they are loyal to the Constitution.

At times Mr. Rouhani himself has expressed doubts about whether he can satisfy the hopes he has roused. "I feel a big burden when I look into the hopeful eyes of people," he said during his campaign in June. "Sometimes I doubt if I am able to lead all of this to its end. I do not know why, but I am very hopeful."

On the whole, Iranians are realistic about the prospects for change. "I don't expect the president to fulfill all his promises," said Hadis Bagheri, 28, who has been unemployed since the previous administration closed down the Association of Poets, where she had an administrative job.

"I did vote for Rouhani because he promised that women like me would be able to go on the streets without being bothered over our clothes," said Mrs. Bagheri, who said she had been arrested several times by the morality police. "At least the patrols are less for now."

Just over 50 days into his presidency Mr. Rouhani preaches patience, saying it will take time to convince well-entrenched hard-liners that their actions are hurting their relationship with the Iranian people.

Having consolidated their power over the past eight years during Mr. Ahmadinejad's two terms, the conservatives control the judiciary, a majority in Parliament, all security forces, the state broadcaster and the influential Friday Prayer venues, where they insist on shouting "Death to America" during prayers.

Nowhere is the emerging battle among the factions more evident than on Iran's extensively filtered Internet. Despite the fact that Mr. Rouhani does not lose an opportunity to emphasize how much trust and faith he has in his people, and how information must be free, he seems powerless to get Facebook and Twitter unblocked.

On Tuesday, Iran's telecom minister, Mahmoud Vaezi, one of the many responsible for the filtering, was first quoted by the Iranian news media as saying there would be "no way" the two sites would be freely available to the public. Hours later his ministry gave out a statement denying Mr. Vaezi's comments and saying that groups "were looking into" opening them up.

Almost immediately, a top judiciary official emphasized that his Committee of Identifying Criminal Content was solely responsible for Iranian Web access and would never unblock Facebook and Twitter.

"Due to the espionage nature of this Web site and its criminal content, the Facebook filter will remain in place," the official, Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, told the semiofficial Mehr news agency. "Any news of unblocking these sites is a lie."

The fact that conservatives are starting to push back does not mean Mr. Rouhani and his cabinet members are backtracking on their promises for more personal freedoms. Last week, the vice president of legal affairs, Elham Aminzadeh, said that the government would soon present a manifesto on civil rights for all citizens.

"This is not propaganda," Mrs. Aminzadeh said. "People need to be informed about their rights using their own language, explicitly and transparently."

Following complaints by the hard-line news media about Mr. Rouhani's phone call with Mr. Obama, the government has announced that it will conduct a rare opinion poll to assess Iranians' reaction to the outreach. "We will see what the people have to say," Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.

While it is true that there are many promises to be fulfilled, said Reza Raesi, the editor in chief of the pro-Rouhani Web site Khordadnews.ir, the real change is the current "calmness" in Iranian society.

"Before we would be depressed every day by the news of the national currency losing ground, of prices going higher and higher and threats of war," he said in his office. "We didn't see a future, but now we do."

Mrs. Salehi, the art teacher, said that even the slightest changes would make a difference in her life. She has cancer, she said, and the sanctions at times make her medication very expensive. Her 24-year-old son has a college degree but, like most young people in Iran, is unemployed.

"Yes, we will have patience, again," she said, echoing Mr. Rouhani. "His words are beautiful, but we really want to see action."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 18, 2013 2:01 PM


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