Zakaria: Reflections on Iran

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Here is my snapshot from a brief visit to Iran. I thought it might add some color to the picture you have of Iran.
Tehran is a big, sprawling city of 8 million people, nestled in a semi-arid plain in the shadow of the Albroz mountains. The highest peaks of these mountains are always snowcapped, with a well-known ski resort. Yes, Iranians ski.
My first impression of Tehran was of cleanliness. It is a remarkably clean city for one in the developing world – certainly a far cry from the chaos of Cairo, for example. The streets are swept daily; garbage is picked up daily. Traffic in the city is terrible but that is largely a consequence of a growing middle class that buys more cars each year. The city has a large network of roads and highways and public buses and the underground metro - all of them effective and clean. The overall impression is of order. Iranians I spoke to said this was attributable to an Iranian fetish with cleanliness and order, though some did credit the city government. Remember the last Mayor of Tehran is currently the President of Iran and the current Mayor of Tehran is reported to be eyeing the presidency as well.
Tehran also a bustling, cosmopolitan city. From the bazaar to shops of every kind that dot neighborhoods, you see Iranians doing business. Because of sanctions, you see very few Western brands. Every bank, store, and boutique has a local name with local products. There are some exceptions. Coca Cola is a here as it is everywhere.
One of the other effects of the sanctions has been that larger and larger parts of the economy are now controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guard - the elite corps of the armed forces. Iranians are a worldly people and don't like the sanctions and their isolation from the world. But they are also a nationalistic people and they seem to resent that they - ordinary people - pay the price for the actions of their government.
Woman in Iran are covered from head to toe but somehow Iran's women have managed to take this restriction and turn it into a fashion statement, so you see highly tailored outfits, colorful headscarfs and peeking out from it all, beautifully made-up faces. Women in Iran are educated, articulate and well-integrated into society. When you watch them driving their cars to work, you are reminded that women in the Islamic Republic of Iran are considerably more liberated than women in Saudi Arabia.
The talk of the people I met with - the political charter - was of the rift between President Ahmadinjad and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameni. Now what is hard for most westerners to understand is that in this debate, in Iran, Ahmadinejad is the moderate. He has been trying to clip the wings of the clergy; he has advocated loosening up some of the restrictions on women, allowing them to attend football games, for example; he speaks of Iran's pres-Islamic past with pride - something that is anathema to the clergy. And many here believe that he wants to be the Iranian president who normalizes relations with the United States. But with all that is going on now - between the Saudi plot and the nuclear deadlock - that appears a distant prospect.


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