The young woman walking down the steps of the Niavaran Palace in Tehran glares angrily into the sun. She has just finished a tour through the splendor and Versailles-like pomp of the last shah’s residence, today a museum. Is she angry at the arrogance and remoteness that Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, toppled in 1979, showed toward his people?
“No,” she replies, somewhat baffled. “I’m angry at him because he let the revolution happen. This country would be better off today if it had been spared the Islamists.”
Traveling through Iran these days, you notice the agitation of the young. Defusing the conflict with the West over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, it appears, is just one challenge for the new president, Hassan Rouhani. The other is the enrichment program going on within society itself.
According to a 2011 census, roughly 70 percent of Iranians are under age 40, and for this young generation — compared with their revolutionary parents — the theocratic government has been a lifelong source of frustration.
Mr. Rouhani knows that the shah was overthrown 34 years ago because he had lost touch with the needs and sentiments of the Iranians. The president obviously intends to avoid the same fate. It may be premature to call Mr. Rouhani an Iranian Gorbachev. It would be worse, though, if the West recognized him as such too late.
Of all the young Iranians I spoke with during a recent two-week visit, nearly everyone said they believe that Mr. Rouhani is a true reformer and that Iran has a chance of experiencing its own spring. “We don’t want a revolution like in the Arab states. Look what happened there. Chaos,” said a 30-year-old academic in Isfahan. “But you need to give Rouhani time. I mean, how many changes did Barack Obama bring about during his first term?”
In a cafe in the same city two women formed an unlikely pair over their macchiatos. One, in jeans, wore a head scarf but with obvious contempt, pushed back to reveal as much of her hair as tolerable. The other wore a chador, piously concealing everything but the oval of her face. What united them was their desire for the government to stay out of their private lives, regardless of whether they were religious or not.
The woman with the chador introduced herself as Mina, a 24-year-old sociology student. She told me that, as a believer, she was unhappy with the way Islam was being exploited for political ends in Iran. She said she had taken to the streets during the Green movement in 2009, only to be insulted by pious old men, who couldn’t believe that a member of their own flock was taking part in the anti-government protests.
“I told them I wasn’t one of them,” she said. “I told them I wanted to live my religion, but I didn’t want Islam to be used to govern a country.”
If this is the new godliness, I thought, how desperate and lonely must those in Iran feel who cling to the Quran as the only legitimate political guide?
You can meet those hard-liners during prayer time in the Friday Mosque in Shiraz. Around a thousand men had gathered to hear the sermon of Ayatollah Asadollah Imani, one of the proxies of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. What he conveys to his community are the thoughts and directives of Iran’s ultimate authority.
But what did he preach this Friday to the elderly and poor men in the mosque? Nothing less than a farewell to the age-old revolutionary doctrine that the West was an evil in itself; Ayatollah Imani informed his listeners that it was quite all right if Mr. Rouhani talked to the Americans.
“It is true, America has been suppressing us for six decades,” he said. “But if America wants to engage in a true dialogue involving dignity and respect, the Supreme Leader does not object to this dialogue. Nor should any reasonable person in Iran oppose it.”
As the crowd dispersed in front of the heavily guarded mosque, a journalist from a local newspaper whispered to me: “That’s it. Clear message. Khamenei stands behind Rouhani.”
Even if this reading holds true, even if the course is set for change, Mr. Rouhani and his men need to advance carefully. There are still ultraconservative clerics who control important parts of the economy and who would have a lot to lose from a rapprochement with the West, not only in a spiritual sense.
The hard-liners also have their grip on Iranian radio and television, which is one reason the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, uses Facebook extensively to spread his views. His posts often include skillful, ironic put-downs of his critics on the religious right. The number of his followers in the social network is growing enormously.
The actual message behind all this might well be that this Iranian government is trying to find a new balance between the street and the mosque, between the secular and the sacred.
Who knows what such a new Iran might look like at the end of the process? What we do know, however, is that the revolutionary Arab states, coming from secular regimes, have so far fared badly in striking this balance. Iran is coming from the other side, and counting on reform rather than on revolution might give it a better chance.
The West, in other words, would be well-advised to engage quickly in yet another round of talks with the Iranians. But this time the focus should be not on limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but on unleashing its people’s democratic aspirations.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.