The festivities were over and life in Esfahan, Iran’s third largest city several hundred miles south of Tehran, had returned to normal. The metal scaffolding in front of the Iman Mosque in Khomeini Square had been taken down and the square’s imposing fountain had been turned off. A late autumn moon rose over the dome of the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque, turning its curved blue surface a haunting purple in the twilight.
Earlier in the day, I had seen the four-wheel drive of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad roll into the square. It was surrounded by his supporters, many of them bused in from the countryside, as he stood and greeted them. Functionaries had passed out posters with the image of Ayatollah Khomeini. Ahmedinejad spoke for about forty-five minutes, defending Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy, and the crowd chanted at the appropriate applause lines. By evening the president had departed, the paid loyalists had been bused back to their villages, and the square had returned to the Esfahanis.
But the evening chill had driven most of the locals away, too, so I, a visiting American, stood out all the more. Soon a young couple sitting on a bench beside the fountain asked where I was from. Firouzeh (not her real name) wondered if I had been at the rally. Yes, I responded, the Revolutionary Guards had miraculously let me through and I’d managed to shoulder my way to the fourth row of supporters. When I asked if she had attended the rally, she scowled. Virtually all the women at the square that afternoon had worn full-length black chadors. Firouzeh, on the other hand, was wearing a form-fitting monteaux and a sheer veil that covered just enough hair to ward off the morals police. Her companion Davood (not his real name) rolled his eyes. He had not been able to go to the rally because he worked for a bank. But Firouzeh could have attended. She worked at a government agency and all the employees had been let out early for the rally. Instead, everyone had gone home to enjoy an afternoon off. “We’re so tired of this government,” she said. “It’s been thirty years, and half this country isn’t any older than that.”
I asked what it would take for a real shake-up to occur—for President Ahmadinejad to be removed, or even for Ayatollah Khamenei to fall from power. “You saw how they reacted after the last election,” Davood said. “They have so much to lose, and they know it. The people who have been in power have used their positions to make themselves rich. But we don’t care about the money. They could take it all with them if they would just leave.”
“Women could make a big difference,” Firouzeh said. “Many don’t have important positions to worry about, so they could take more risks.” A few days after the disputed vote, I had seen a silent protest in central Tehran where at least half of the marchers were women.
“But then what?” I asked. “If the government did fall tomorrow, what would you want to replace it?”
“A democratic one, like the U.S.,” Davood said. Be careful what you wish for, I thought, but then Firouzeh cut in: “What we don’t want is all this religion in politics. Religion should be something personal, private, not a part of public life.”
Davood nodded. “We don’t want all this conflict with other countries, the U.S.,” he said. “We have the right to develop nuclear energy, but we don’t need nuclear weapons. That money should be used to develop Iran.”
“We could learn a lot from the U.S.,” Firouzeh added. “It has also had a difficult history, and lots of experience in managing a very complex society.”
“The U.S. could learn a lot from Iran, too,” Davood replied. “We know what it’s like to be a major power. For us it was a long time ago, but we’ve had a great culture. That gives you some knowledge of the world.” All around us was evidence of his claim. The façade and minarets of the five-hundred-year-old Imam Mosque were silhouetted in the glow of the moonlight. Across the square the seventeenth-century Ali Qapu Palace loomed over the darkened reflecting pool.
Firouzeh was shivering. It was time to go. “We’re sorry we can’t invite you to our house,” she said. “Hosting foreigners is, well, you know the situation…. This is a very low point in our history, but we’re really a very different country. When change comes to this part of the world it could start in Iran.”
Now I was feeling the chill—but not from the night air. “Yes, it could,” I said, as though I believed it. And maybe I did.