Video: Deep inside Iran

updated 6/3/2005 7:20:11 AM ET 2005-06-03T11:20:11

SOUTH OF TEHRAN, Iran — Tehran is a city of great contrasts in a land with a split personality. Is Iran a country prepared for the 21st century or one stuck in the last 30 years?

It pretends to be a democracy, with presidential elections in two weeks.  But in Iranian politics, there's a higher power. Whichever candidate wins the presidential election on June 17, one man still will have all the power. 

He is Said al Khamenei, the keeper of the flame of Ayatollah Khomeini and the nation's supreme religious leader. The politicians have elections; Said al Khamenei runs the country.

One of the political clerics claims he can change that. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is a conservative former president who is now talking vaguely about improving relations with America.

But Iranian students I spoke with expect no real change.

"Many people in Iran don't want to vote in this election," said one.

They've heard promises of reform before. Will they vote?

"No, of course not," said another. "It's not in the way of democracy."

If the young and other progressives don't vote, the unelected mullahs will have even more power.

At Friday prayers, the invocation is, "marg bar amrika." In case you don't recognize the chant, it is "death to America." We first heard it in 1979, when Iranian students seized the American Embassy and took hostages in a long and dangerous standoff. That was the end of U.S.-Iranian relations and the peak of power for Khomeini.

Today, the old walled-off embassy is a headquarters for the Revolutionary Guard and a billboard for anti-American slogans. But it draws little attention.

The Iranian economy is a much larger issue. With its rich oil and gas deposits, Iran should be one of the most prosperous nations in the world, but everyone agrees the Iranian economy is a mess. It's a combination of corruption, state mismanagement, high unemployment and hyperinflation.

A handful of rials, the currency of Iran, in 10,000 denomination bills is worth less than $200.  There are a million young Iranians entering the job market every year and only half that many jobs. And no one has any answers.

"Inside Iran there is a kind of apathy, rather than a will to do something about it," says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, editor of Iran News. "They are resigned to the fact that this is it and they're going to have to live with it. And they’re hoping that things will change gradually."

There is a shrine to Khomeini south of Tehran — the burial place of the man who started the Islamic revolution that continues to reverberate throughout Iran and the rest of the world. Every day the faithful approach Khomeini's burial site with reverence and emotion — but their numbers are modest and it's hard to know if they think of him as their future as well as their past. It is being built to last hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The more pressing question for the Iranian people is if the Khomeini era comes to an end, how will it come to an end?

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