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For more than 30 years, the Islamic Republic has been obsessively battling against sex, but as with anything that is suppressed or banned, people have learned to sidestep the punitive regulations. 


  An Iranian woman adjusts her headscarf in central Tehran. Photo: Getty

An Iranian woman adjusts her headscarf in central Tehran. Photo: Getty

Like most girls in her neighbourhood in Tehran, Tahmineh is a virgin. In her world, virginity is still revered. For many men, a woman’s virginity is a non-negotiable prerequisite for marriage. Even among some of the richer classes that ostensibly live more “western” lives, partying with alcohol and music, the men will happily sleep around but will want to marry someone “pure”. Virginity is seen as a marker of decency, of good family stock and morals.

In the narrow, twisting clutch of roads where Tahmineh lives, revealing your hair even to an uncle or a male cousin is not acceptable. Here, a woman’s virtue is the cornerstone of life, and local people blame bad hijab and declining morals for everything from high inflation to unemployment. Women live under constant risk of being branded loose for behaviour as anodyne as laughing too raucously or wearing the colour red.

Tahmineh wears the all-encompassing, black chador because her parents insist on it, and because neighbours in her conservative community gossip about women who choose to wear the headscarf and manteau, the overcoat that is meant to keep curves concealed. But in Tehran, being a virgin does not mean that Tahmineh has not had sex. “I first had anal sex when I was 21. Of course I want to have proper sex, but until I know for sure that my boyfriend wants to get married, I can’t risk it.”

Before Tahmineh graduated to anal sex, she and her friends were having la-paee (literally, “thigh”) sex, where the man uses a woman’s clenched thighs to orgasm. Tahmineh believes there are rising numbers of girls like her, who are from religious or traditional families but prepared to experiment sexually before marriage.

“Most girls in my area think that just being in a confined space with a boy is a sin, but my best friend has had la-paee sex, and I know lots of girls from less strict families who are allowed to hang out with boys, but who are still expected to be virgins, so they all have anal sex instead.” This phenomenon is so ubiquitous in Tehran that anal sex has become the butt – pun intended – of many a Tehrani joke.

For more than 30 years, the Islamic Republic has been obsessively battling against sex. It is preoccupied by how and with whom its people are having it. Lawmakers and scholars devote hours to discussing sex, condemning sex and sentencing people for having sex. Mullahs on television and radio philosophise and advise about it, sometimes in surprisingly lascivious detail. Government posters warn of the link between immodest dress and dubious morals; find-a-fatwa websites warn of the perils of self-love (everything from psychological damage to wreaking havoc on the nervous system) and offer cures to masturbators (lots of prayer and fasting).

As with anything that is suppressed or banned – such as alcohol, which flows through homes the length and breadth of the city – people have learned to sidestep the restrictions. And they are hungrier than ever for that which is not allowed. There is a sexual awakening in Tehran, and it is spreading beyond the rich, northern foothills of the city, where the more liberal and secular families live. There are some parallels with the sexual revolution that followed Franco’s fall in Spain, mainly that it is a backlash against repression, but in Tehran it is happening underground and behind closed doors. Graphic photos are bluetoothed and texted across the city; internet chat rooms and social sites are full of hook-ups. Not forgetting the city’s “special” women – the government’s euphemism for prostitutes.

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The Guardian

Breaking bad in Tehran: how Iran got a taste for crystal meth

Cheap, widely available and used by students and housewives alike, crystal meth is taking the Iranian capital by storm. The author of a new book about the country reports on an addiction that even the repressive regime is struggling to control

Women at a crystal meth rehab centre on the western outskirts of Tehran. Photograph: Maryam Rahmanian

Ramita Navai

The Guardian, Tuesday 13 May 2014 17.54 BST

'What economic crisis? Business is good," Bijan winks as he flashes his big, gap-toothed smile.

Bijan is a cook and dealer of sheesheh – crystal meth – which has exploded on the Iranian drug market and, for the first time, overtaken heroin to become the country's second most popular drug (opium still tops the list). Meth production in the country has been expanding at an astonishing rate. According to a 2013 study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Iranian government first reported manufacture of the drug just six years ago, when four production facilities were seized. By 2012, though, Iran was the world's fourth highest importer of pseudoephedrine, the main precursor chemical used in the production of crystal meth. Research carried out by the Centre for Preventative Welfare shows that over half a million Tehranis between the ages of 15 and 45 have used it at least once.

The country's drug problem is not new; Iran has one of the highest rates of addiction in the world and the interior minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, announced recently that some six million Iranians are affected by problems related to drug addiction.

In Tehran, drugs are everywhere. At one popular spot north of the city, queues of cars pull up to be served under a motorway flyover. Dealers trade on a layby with lookouts and security dotted around them. The peak time is 2am and all are catered for. Cocaine has become a regular feature at parties among Tehran's richer residents; young people throughout the city smoke marijuana and pop ecstasy pills; opium – viewed as an older person's drug – is still widely considered to be culturally acceptable. In seedy corners of south Tehran, addicts gather to inject heroin, as they always have done. But when crystal meth hit the streets it managed to transcend social divides, and could be found everywhere in the city.

In a graffiti-daubed side street in the centre of Tehran, a teenager with an emo haircut and a leather jacket pulled over a grey hoodie stands in a doorway, his pockets stuffed with small plastic bags of crystal meth. Peyvand sells a gram for the equivalent of about $5. He has been caught countless times by the police but has always paid his way out of prison.

"Everyone buys it. Most of my customers are regular kids like me, students, or they've got office jobs. But rich kids use it too – I either deliver it to their houses, or they turn up in their flash cars," he says. "It's more expensive than heroin, and young people see it almost as a luxury drug; it's become a chic thing to do."

One of Peyvand's friends, who is also a regular customer, smokes sheesheh once every couple of days. "I love it. It's much stronger than heroin, much more intense. And it's safer; there's no risk of overdosing. Sheesheh is just a great high."

Peyvand says he sells crystal meth at his local gym to bodybuilders and athletes who use it to give them energy while they train, and to a growing number of young women who buy it to lose weight.

A few miles north of where Peyvand deals, a queue of women sit on white plastic chairs in a beauty salon set up in a marble-clad apartment block. Drawn by the salon's reputation as a purveyor of the finest Hollywood bikini waxes, they flick through hairstyle magazines and a few outdated copies of Hello! There are housewives, students, a women with her black chador hanging open around her shoulders and a group in their mid-20s with Botox-smooth foreheads clutching Louis Vuitton handbags. The place fizzes with gossip. A fortune-teller works her way up the line, dispensing advice with the flick of a card and extracting generous tips. Also a hit with some of these women are the under-the-counter methamphetamine pills. A couple of years ago, meth was widely available at beauty salons, until a member of parliament called for a clampdown. Even though many places stopped stocking it, demand is still high.

"The pills are cheaper than liposuction, and I think it's a lot safer," says Roya, a 26-year-old secretary. "When it's in pill form, it's a slimming aid. It's not like smoking bags of it, which is bad for you. For me, it's like medicine, it's not for enjoyment."

Bijan, who is from a family of gangsters, ditched selling more conventional drugs like heroin and opium in favour of crystal meth three years ago. "It's a cheap and easy drug to make. And unlike heroin, you don't have to deal with Afghanistan and all the middle-men along the way, so there's less chance of being caught and fewer people to deal with," he says.

Crystal meth … slowly becoming taboo. Photograph: Alamy

He runs his operation out of a ragged, industrial town just outside the capital. It is a poor, forgotten place surrounded by factories. Here grocery stores still sell blocks of pungent black opium alongside staples such as milk and slabs of white ewe's cheese. Most of the residents are either unemployed or work as day labourers and in recent years it has become home to many paperless Afghan migrants. Even though this is not Bijan's patch – he only sells to dealers in Tehran – the changing face of drug use in the town is emblematic of what is happening in the rest of the country. Ironically, the rapid growth in sheesheh is partly due to the falsely held belief that it is less addictive than heroin.

While the country's economy is flailing in the wake of stricter sanctions and the damage wreaked by the populist policies of the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that sent the Rial tumbling and the inflation rate soaring, the illegal drugs trade is booming. Iran has long been one of the busiest transit countries for drugs traffickers moving heroin from Afghanistan to the West and it has the highest rate of opium and heroin seizures in the world. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, nearly 4,000 Iranian police officers and soldiers have been killed in a neverending and costly war; Iran spends around $1bn a year on anti-drug operations and on securing its 900km border with Afghanistan. Punishments for people caught are severe. Fazli, the interior minister, has said that 80% of all those who are killed by the state are executed on charges relating to drugs trafficking.

There have been extensive public awareness campaigns, with adverts on the television and radio warning of the dangers of crystal meth. These appear to have had some impact, as unlike opium, sheesheh use is becoming increasingly taboo, especially in the more affluent parts of the city.

The government, predictably, says it is stemming the surge in crystal meth production, with Fazli announcing the seizure of 3,500kg of crystal meth last year and that 375 meth labs had been discovered – more than double the number in 2012.

"It's not like the early days when they didn't have a clue what sheesheh was. They are definitely putting more resources into fighting it. But for every meth lab they destroy, another lot spring up," says Bjijan.

To keep one step ahead of the authorities, Bijan says he bribes police officers. In return for a small cut of his profits and "hush" money, the policemen tip him off about raids and investigations that may involve him, and they promise to destroy any files on him, should they materialise.

"This country's all about connections. As long as you know a few powerful heavyweights, you'll be fine. It's one rule for the rich and one rule for everyone else. I'm lucky in that I've got money and I know people. That way, you stay out of the noose," he says, dragging on a cigarette as he makes a hanging gesture with his free hand.

In south Tehran there seems to be little indication that the crystal meth craze is abating. Outside a charity for sex workers, two women are slumped on the pavement, their faces scratched and covered in sores and their eyes sunken; the tell-tale signs of crystal meth addiction. One of the women cries as she explains that she is now hooked on sheesheh as well as heroin. Outreach workers here say that the area's most vulnerable and severe addicts have little access to services and are unaware of public campaigns; they complain bitterly that sanctions have halted funding for their rehabilitation programmes.

Bijan does not live far from the community of sex workers who are struggling to feed their habits. He has no moral conscience about what he does and blames the selling and buying of drugs on being forced to live in a repressive country. But he prides himself on making pure, safe crystal meth and he is now considering expanding his operation to Malaysia and Thailand, where he says associates are making even more money – the average price of meth pills in Malaysia is at least five times that in Iran.

"People need an outlet. And for those of us who sell it, well, there are no jobs, and if you're not from a rich family, you will never have opportunities in this country. At least making crystal meth has given me the chance to look after my family."

Some names have been changed.

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The Guardian

A women's rebellion

They helped bring down the shah – and 30 years on they refuse to be cowed by Iran's Islamic regime

Ramita Navai
The Guardian, Tuesday 23 June 2009 

Fired at, beaten with clubs, bloodied and screaming – the shocking footage of protesters in Iran is not remarkable just for its brutality and sheer scale, but also because so many of the frontline victims are women. And now a woman has ­become the symbol of the rebellion: one of the most disturbing images to emerge is that of Neda Agha-Soltan, a teenage student shot by a sniper, blood pouring from her mouth and her eyes rolling back into her head as she dies in the arms of her wailing father.

For those who have been following the complex and twisted world of Iranian politics, the massive presence of women comes as no surprise, as for several years women's groups have been the major voice of dissent and a thorn in the Islamic regime's side.

Their rise began in the reformist era, when President Khatami loosened social strictures and gave more leeway to charities and non-governmental organisations, which had been heavily restricted. At the same time, the student movement began to crumble, its collapse triggered by the 1999 riots that ended in police and rightwing vigilantes storming Tehran University dormitories.

With labour unions impotent and no real opposition, the women's movement began to gain momentum – especially after the election of President Ahmadinejad, who sought to roll back rights won under Khatami. Universities capped the number of female students, and Ahmadinejad proposed laws to ease restrictions on polygamy. He also changed the name and function of the government's "Centre for Women's Participation", calling it the "Centre for Women and Family Affairs", shred all research literature published under its previous incarnation, and halted funding to women's groups.

It was then that the One Million Signature Campaign was conceived. What began as a grassroots movement to mark the anniversary of a violent police raid snowballed into one of the most formidable civil-society forces to hit the Islamic regime. The network of activists collecting signatures to petition for a revision of discriminatory laws has spread to over half Iran's provinces.

The government has made concessions in a bid to pacify it – allowing women to register as presidential candidates for the first time (although the Guardian Council barred all those who put their names down). However, peaceful sit-ins by women old and young, holding placards demanding equal divorce rights, have ended in bloody beatings by the police and the Basij militia. Scores of members have spent the last couple of years in and out of prison. They have become accustomed to violent raids, sporadic arrests and detention, interrogation and intimidation.

The group formed a pre-election coalition with other women's organisations to back the reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. He had promised to appoint women to high posts, break up the morality police and enact legal reform. But the coalition was forced to disband amid fears of a crackdown.

While the unrest has been a spontaneous outpouring of rage and frustration, these established networks of women mean that people who would not usually play a role in politics have also taken to the streets. During the past week, many members have been seen with their old placards in hand.

These bloody street scenes mirror the 1979 revolution when women played a crucial role in bringing down the monarchy. Paradoxically, it was one of the pillars of the revolution's socialist values – education of the masses – that created a wave of women more aware of their rights than ever. The revolution sowed the seed of its own problem: for many of these women, there is no turning back.

The Times

Landslide victory for Iran’s conservatives

Ramita Navai in Tehran

March 18 2008

Conservatives in Iran celebrated winning a near-landslide victory in parliamentary elections, gaining an expected 70 per cent majority in the 290-seat assembly and retaining the control that they have held over parliament since 2004.

The win does not, however, herald a triumph for the hardline President Ahmadinejad. The conservatives are deeply split and the President’s allies will now come head to head with his conservative critics, who some say have won an equal number of seats.

These “pragmatist” conservatives are led by Ali Larijani, the former nuclear negotiator, who fell out with President Ahmadinejad last year and who won 70 per cent of votes in the religious city of Qom.

These conservatives are critical of the President’s confrontational approach over Iran’s nuclear programme, his fiery rhetoric and the ailing economy. The parliamentary elections are regarded as a litmus test for Mr Ahmadinejad’s popularity in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections. The growing divide between the conservative factions means that the new parliament could cause trouble for the President.

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The Times

All Ahmadinejad has done is create poverty

Martin Fletcher and Ramita Navai in Tehran

March 13 2008

Until President Ahmadinejad’s name is mentioned Mokhtar, an Iranian labourer, stands listlessly with his friends on a street corner in a blue-collar district of south Tehran. Suddenly he grows animated. He voted enthusiastically for Mr Ahmadinejad in 2005 because he had pledged to help the poor, he says. Now he feels so disillusioned that he will never vote again. “I will not pollute myself,” he declares.

His family is suffering, Mokhtar explains. Work is scarce. The rent on his one-bedroom flat has jumped from $120 (£60) to $180 a month. Food prices are soaring. He has no health insurance, cannot afford a car and may soon have to move somewhere even cheaper. He recalls Mr Ahmadinejad’s pledge to put oil money on every Iranian’s dinner table. “It was precisely for that slogan that I voted for him but it didn’t happen,” he says. “I’m very disappointed. All he’s done is create inflation and poverty.”

Tomorrow Iran elects a new Majlis (parliament) and although the hardline President is not a candidate the results will be scrutinised to assess his chances of re-election next year.

The threat to the bête noire of the West comes not from the reformists swept from power in 2005. The Guardian Council, Iran’s Islamic watchdog, has disqualified hundreds of their best-known candidates, including former government ministers and sitting MPs. The reformists will contest barely half the 290 seats. “It’s like a soccer game with 11 players and the referee taking on a team of two,” complains Muhammad Atrianfar, who was editor of the reformist newspaper Shargh (East) until the Government closed it last year.

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The Irish Times

Who's calling the shots in Iran?

March 31, 2007 

It is not yet clear who ordered the arrest of 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf, or what their motives were. But Tehran has shown it does not fear raising the stakes in its war of nerves with the West, writes Ramita Navai

As Iran judders towards confrontation with the West, at a time when it is already embroiled in an escalating nuclear crisis, there seems to be confusion behind the scenes.

On Thursday, Tehran withdrew an earlier offer to release leading seaman Faye Turney, the only woman of the 15 sailors and marines captured on a routine patrol in the Persian Gulf.

And while Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki recently said, "Iran welcomes any constructive suggestions to solve the issue bilaterally", he has also been quoted as saying Britain was "trying to politicise and make propaganda out of the issue, and such behaviour is not acceptable".

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The Irish Times

Iran defies West by resuming nuclear activity

The Irish Times

August 9, 2005 | Ramita Navai in Tehran 

IRAN: Iran has resumed nuclear fuel work at a uranium conversion plant near the central city of Esfahan, putting it on a collision course with the West.

The move is likely to result in Iran being hauled in front of the UN security council and face possible sanctions.

"The uranium conversion facility in Esfahan has started its activities under supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency," Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, told reporters at the plant.

The announcement came after UN inspectors finished installing surveillance equipment at the plant.

The EU, represented by Britain, France and Germany, had already called an emergency meeting of the IAEA board for today, during which an ultimatum demanding a suspension of nuclear fuel work is expected.

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The Irish Times

Iran appoints new president as West fears future nuclear policy

The Irish Times

August 4, 2005 | Ramita Navai Tehran 

Iran: Ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president yesterday, taking power as Iran edged closer to an international crisis over its nuclear ambitions.

In his first address as president, the former mayor and revolutionary guard pledged to fight for justice and prosperity for Iranians and also called for an end to weapons of mass destruction.

After officially appointing Mr Ahmadinejad president, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivered a strong anti- western speech ordering the new government not to give up "the rights of the nation". It was welcomed with chants of "Death to America! Death to Israel!"

Within hours of Mr Ahmadinejad's appointment, Tehran announced it would start work at a uranium conversion plant near the central city of Esfahan, defying yet another appeal from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran does not resume its nuclear activities until next week.

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The Irish Times

World awaits Ahmadinejad's first move

Post-election some analysts now believe Iran is just one step closer to a dictatorship, writes Ramita Navai in Tehran

June 29, 2005 

IRAN: The apprehension is beginning to show. As news of the landslide victory of Iran's new president, ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over moderate cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani broke, Iran's fledgling stock market saw its shares plummet.

It is not just investors and rich high society who are feeling nervous. The major players in world politics are also distinctly uneasy.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Mr Ahmadinejad is "no friend of democracy . . . no friend of freedom". The EU has expressed concerns, as has Tony Blair and Israeli deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres.

Who can blame them? His revolutionary credentials are glowing. He trained Basij Islamic militia, was a member of the prestigious Special Forces unit of the Revolutionary Guard, where he was rumoured to have carried out covert operations in Iraq during the war, and he was part of the US embassy siege in 1979.

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The Irish Times

Nuclear plan to stay, says Iran's new president

June 27, 2005 | Ramita Navai in Tehran

Iran: Iran's hardline president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will not give up his country's nuclear programme, but will continue negotiations with European countries to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, he said yesterday.

The Tehran mayor won a landslide victory in Friday's second round poll against former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

"We need this technology for energy and medical purposes. We shall carry on with it," he said in his first press conference since winning the election. The diminutive politician, who coasted to an unexpected victory promising to redress social injustice and fight corruption, said he would not prioritise relations with the US.

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The Times

‘Jailed journalist will die if world fails to react’

From Ramita Navai in Tehran

August 6 2005

SMUGGLED photographs of Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most famous political prisoner, show him ghostly white and gaunt with sunken eyes. He is close to death after 56 days of a hunger strike.

Mr Ganji was rushed from the Evin prison in Tehran to Milad Hospital last week as his health deteriorated. Massoumeh Shafiie, his wife, said doctors have tried to feed him intravenously but he has pulled out the feeding tubes.

Mr Ganji, an investigative journalist, was jailed for six years in 2000 on charges of “acting against national security”. Some charges related to an article he wrote linking some of the country’s top officials to the 1998 murder of dissident intellectuals.

He was temporarily released in May for medical treatment, when he came to the end of a 43-day hunger strike. Since returning to prison in June, he has resumed his hunger strike.

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The Times

President invokes new Islamic wave

By Ramita Navai in Tehran

June 30 2005

IRAN’S ultra-conservative President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threw down a challenge to the West yesterday by declaring that his election victory marked the dawn of a new Islamic revolution that would spread around the world.

“Thanks to the blood of the martyrs, a new Islamic revolution has arisen and the Islamic revolution of 1384 [the current Iranian year] will, if God wills, cut off the roots of injustice in the world,” he said. “The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world.”

His fiery language shows that he has not lost the revolutionary ardour that propelled him into politics as a young Basij Islamic militia volunteer who had fought in the Iran-Iraq war. It is also reminiscent of the rhetoric of Ayatollah Khomenei, the architect of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and is likely to sound alarm bells in the West, afraid that his victory could signal a return to post-revolutionary fundamentalism.

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The Times

Guardian of the revolution with a populist feel for the working class

From Ramita Navai in Tehran

June 27 2005

AS MAYOR of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gained notoriety for pandering to his right-wing supporters with frequent crackdowns. He closed several cultural centres, turning them into prayer houses, he shut down fast-food restaurants and he made city employees grow beards and wear long sleeves.

He also famously banned hoardings of David Beckham — the first Western celebrity to be used in advertising since the 1979 revolution — in a drive against “Westoxification”. Such measures angered the departing reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who eventually barred Mr Ahmadinejad from attending Cabinet meetings.

He became mayor after winning the 2003 municipal elections when turnout plunged to just 12 per cent. His victory marked the beginning of a conservative resurgence and the decline of the reform movement, whose leader, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, he trounced by a spectacular margin in the presidential election on Friday.

But despite his hardline stance, Mr Ahmadinejad is also seen as a populist man of the people. While other candidates spoke in abstract terms of freedom and democracy, Mr Ahmadinejad’s straight talking on issues that matter to the ordinary Iranian — unemployment, poverty and corruption — and his blunt criticism of the wealthy Iranian elite won him the working-class vote. He threatened to “cut the hands off the mafias” who he claimed control the country’s oil industry.

“He’s one of us” is a common remark made by his supporters, from market stallholders in the slums of south Tehran to middle-class office workers. His supporters and those close to him say that he is a humble man with a modest lifestyle. His campaign film contrasted the glittering mansions of his predecessor with his own small suburban house in east Tehran, where he lives with his wife.

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The Irish Times

Bush policy aids Iranian hardliners

IRAN: US pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme is reinforcing hardliners rather than encouraging reformers, Ramita Navai reports from Tehran

January 26, 2005 

Since President Bush's axis-of-evil speech in February 2002, Washington hawks have been vocal about the issue of Iran, culminating in charges last week that American special forces are covertly operating in the country and Condoleezza Rice's public commitment to get tough on its nuclear programme, which the US says is a cover for developing the bomb.

British Foreign Secretary Mr Jack Straw was dispatched to Washington, producing a substantial dossier arguing a peaceful solution led by Britain, France and Germany "in the best interests of Iran and the international community".

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The Irish Times

Banning of the hookah keeps social life under tight control
Letter from Tehran
Ramita Navai

July 1, 2004 

Wafting out of chai houses from the slums of south Tehran to the glamorous restaurants nestled in the hills of north Tehran, the heady, rich aroma of the hubble bubble hangs like a cloud in the hot summer air. This is cafe culture Iranian style - soon to banned by hardline conservatives.

Obligatory with a glass of black, bitter tea and a requisite way of ending a meal, smoking the hubble bubble, or the qalyoun as it is known in Iran, is serious business, entrenched in Iranian culture for centuries.

Travel guide Lonely Planet advises its readers that smoking the pipe is "the greatest act of cultural integration that a foreigner can make in Iran, short of converting to Shi'ite Islam".

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The Times

Iran election divides rich and poor

By Ramita Navai

February 21 2004

A boycott by richer citizens contrasts with voting zeal in the hub of the 1979 revolution

POLLING stations across Iran were ordered to remain open yesterday to give voters three more hours to take part in parliamentary elections blighted by controversy after hundreds of reformist candidates were disqualified.

The Interior Ministry demanded an extension to voting hours in an apparent effort to achieve a higher turnout among a disaffected electorate. Early indications suggested a reduced but respectable turnout of between 47 and 52 per cent, according to an Interior Ministry source. That compares with 67 per cent in 2000 when reformers swept two thirds of the parliament seats.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, attacked MPs who called for a boycott of the elections and urged Iranians to vote. “You see how those who are against the Iranian nation and the Islamic Revolution are trying so hard to prevent people from going to the polls,” he said on state television.

Washington witheld comment on the balloting while it was still under way, but attacked the pre-election disqualification of reformist candidates, which Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, described as “reason for concern”. The actions of Iran’s Government were “not consistent with international norms”, Mr Ereli added.

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The Times

Calls for Iran poll boycott grow

Ramita Navai in Tehran

February 20 2004

Disillusioned students see little point in voting when reformist candidates are barred

SHAHRAM and his student friends used to meet every week after their lectures to discuss politics in their local coffee shop. They no longer bother, and neither will they be voting in Iran’s parliamentary election today.

“What’s the point? We thought our vote counted for something, but it doesn’t. No one I know will be voting,” Shahram says, sitting crosslegged in his bedroom.

There is no pre-election buzz in Tehran, just a sense of resignation that was compounded this week when the ruling theocracy closed two leading reformist newspapers for publishing a letter critical of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.

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The Times

MPs to boycott ‘farcical’ Iranian elections

From Ramita Navai in Tehran

February 16 2004

FATEMEH RAKEI was assured of re-election in Iran’s parliamentary elections this week, but has decided to boycott the ballot in protest at the disqualification of 2,000 other reformist candidates by the hardline Guardian Council.

“Those disqualified by the Guardian Council are my colleagues and best friends,” Ms Rakei, a popular revolutionary poet, told The Times yesterday. “The reason for their disqualification is just political. By not standing, I am showing my support for them and showing that I reject all the things the council has said about them.”

Friday’s vote is now being viewed as farcical. In addition to the 2,000 banned reformists, 550 other reformist candidates, including many MPs such as Ms Rakei, announced over the weekend that they will refuse to participate in what they are denouncing as a parliamentary coup d’etat.

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The Times

Local workers are the true heroes

From Ramita Navai in Bam

January 3 2004

THE international aid workers are a conspicuous sight as they traipse through the ruined city of Bam. Laden with sophisticated equipment, they are received with cries of joy wherever they go.

Destitute survivors offer them their bread and water. “Come to my home for a chai!” people beseech them from the thresholds of their tents.

Fifty aid teams from around the world have been to Bam. Most have now left, believing that their job is done. But grinding on in the background is the Iranian aid effort. It has been huge. Donation points throughout Iran bulge with food and gifts, and millions of dollars have flooded in – this from a country with an unemployment rate of more than 15 per cent.

The Iranian Red Crescent Society, an immense legion of volunteers, doggedly labours away. With their discreet white bibs, they are omnipresent: mullahs in combat trousers, Basij militiamen, scout groups, students, doctors, teachers. Eight bakers from Mashad have set up a bakery to feed the hungry. As many as 9,000 volunteers have come to Bam. They shovel the ruins with the locals, distribute food and water, bury the dead and register the living.

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The Times

American aid workers fly the flag in Iran

From Ramita Navai in Bam

January 1 2004

THE Stars and Stripes emblazoned on the top of a cream state-of-the-art tent has drawn a large crowd of Iranians. There is a buzz in the air. They haven’t seen the American flag on show in public in this way for 24 years.

Two bright red trucks gleam beside the tent, not a splash of mud or dust on them. Tanned, brawny firefighters hurry about. They look slick.

Their crisp, dark-blue combat trousers and fitted military-style jumpers are an incongruous sight amid the baggy fluorescent boiler suits. Cameramen, journalists, Basij militiamen, mullahs and soldiers swarm around the new arrivals; even a few curious survivors have taken a detour from collecting aid to come and look at the “amrikais”.

Everybody wants to talk to the boys in blue. They have enjoyed a rapturous welcome: no other aid team was given a singlered rose for each worker. “We go, people see us and they love us. They see the American flag and they feel like help is here,” Craig Luecke, from the Fairfax, Virginia, Fire Service, said. “The people of Iran have given us so much.”

The feeling is mutual. “We like Americans, they are nice people,” a shivering survivor says, sitting on a mound of rubble, huddled with his family around a fire.

Even the Basij, carefully watching the proceedings from a grass mound overlooking the American tent, view the political situation as a separate issue: “We’ve got nothing against the American people. It’s just their Government that messes things up.”

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The Times

Quake survivors seek shelter in a barren landscape

From Ramita Navai in Bam

December 31 2003

A THICK white mist hangs stagnant over Bam. Under it the survivors shiver with cold. For the 100,000 homeless, some sheltering in flimsy tents, most wearing only the clothes that they had on when last week’s earthquake struck, the drop in temperature is too much to bear.

The rescue phase of the aid effort is winding down. Up to 50,000 people are thought to have died since the earthquake on Friday devastated the 2,000-year-old city in Iran. Now the emphasis is on shelter. Bam is a city of the dispossessed.

Last night Houshang’s two-year-old girl Maryam and eight-month-old baby Sara, could not sleep because of the cold. They were curled up on their mother’s lap.

Houshang’s wife Farangis said: “We’ve been waiting for a tent for days. They keep giving us water, but all we want is a tent.” At night Houshang lights a fire and feeds it with broken furniture that he digs up from his house. Last night it was their chairs, tonight it will be their table and shelves.

The cold weather is good for disease control, although now the main concern is not epidemics but hypothermia.

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The Times

I see an endless production line of death in the desert

By Ramita Navai

December 29 2003

Apocalyptic scenes as the city of Bam buries its dead

HUNDREDS of cars piled high with bodies file into the Behesht Zahra cemetery in Bam. Survivors drive their loved ones to the mass grave on the backseat of cars, tied on to roofracks, stacked on the back of pick-up trucks and packed into the boots of cars.

From a distance, it looks like a vast construction site. But through the haze of a sandstorm, the apocalyptic scene unfolds — endless rows of trenches tightly crammed with thousands of corpses spill out into the barren desert. The smell of death clings to the air and sticks to the lungs: not even the strong desert wind can shift it.

At least 22,000 people are believed to have died last Friday, in the worst earthquake in more than a decade, according to the Iranian Government. Some estimates put the casualties as high as 30,000.

As helicopters buzz overhead, a forklift truck roars with age as it picks up bodies and kicks up dust. All around them men with shovels dig furiously at the earth, while mechanical diggers plough into the horizon. The desert is endless, but so is the incessant stream of new arrivals.

A woman on her knees beats her head and wails, throwing dust in her face. As she claws at the mound of earth at her feet her remaining family members desperately try to drag her away, crying and pleading. Around her people are on their knees praying. Relatives cluster around the graves. They have been here for hours — most have no one and nothing to go back for.

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