T E H R A N, Iran, Feb. 20, 2004 -- You have to look closely, but Iranians have been behaving in ways that until recently were considered unacceptable and un-Islamic here.
Today, some girls wear makeup. They push their veils farther and farther back on their heads showing some of their hair, which conservative Muslims consider risqué. Unmarried couples hold hands in public. Teenagers listen openly to Western pop music.
The changes are subtle, in a country where Iranian men and women still must abide by a strict Islamic code. Women must wear the familiar, frumpy chador, a black flowing robe which translates into English as "tent." Men are still officially prohibited from accompanying women other than their wives and female relatives. But very slowly, young Iranians are tasting new social freedoms.
Farhad — his English nickname is Freddy — is the lead singer of the Tehran heavy metal rock band "Moghan," or "The Priests." Bands like his were forbidden into the late 1990s. Now, they can practice and sometimes play concerts. Some bands even sell CDs, though only with the approval of an official Islamic committee.
"Nobody bothers us," said Farhad. "Even though right across from us, there's a guy from the revolutionary guards. They are used to it by now."
‘We Have Rave Parties’
Behind closed doors, young Iranians constantly told us, they are pushing the limits of Iran's conservative Muslim society even further.
"The nightlife in Iran is amazing," a 25-year-old engineering student told me. (He, like many young people, asked that ABCNEWS not use his name.) "In the suburbs around Tehran, you can see everything. You can never imagine to see it in Las Vegas, I think."
"We have rave parties," a 27-year-old woman said. "We have ecstasy parties, which is in fashion recently, cocaine parties, coke parties."
For changes like this to happen, there must have been some tacit official acceptance, but there were no public pronouncements. Iran's pro-reform politicians, criticized by many here for delivering change far too slowly, claim credit for helping to create a more permissive environment. They make small steps toward their vision of a more open, more equitable Iran.
Reform Activists Want Gradual Change
"We as reformers have said that we want gradual changes," said Dr. Abdollah Ramazan Zadeh, the Iranian president's spokesman, and a reform party activist. "We have said it to the people and we have promised not to go more too fast."
But young Iranians — 70 percent of the population is under 35 — say the government's small concessions have come with no new political freedoms. For them, the changes are purely cosmetic.
"You see a little bit more women coming with, let's say, better-designed clothes, more fashionable, but deep down inside, not a lot has changed," a 30-year-old man said. "Politically, socially, not a lot has changed."
"I think you know there is no political freedom," said one 19-year-old girl. "If you speak, you will go to jail."
Many here believe Iran's conservatives are using token gestures — looser veils, tighter clothes, more Western music — to draw attention away from efforts to stifle and even reverse political reform. The signs of a continuing crackdown, they say, are distressing.
Since 1999, 200 pro-reform newspapers have been shut down. Nearly 4,000 mostly reformist candidates were barred from today's parliamentary elections. Thousands of political prisoners are in Iranian jails.
Student leader Ali Afshari, 30, finished a three-year sentence just last month. An outspoken critic of Iran's religious leaders, he was charged with "threatening security."
"I spent 350 straight days in solitary confinement," said Afshaire. "They didn't let me sleep and sometimes they beat me. Only my hope for the future kept me alive."
While Ali was being held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, an Iranian-Canadian journalist named Zahra Kazemi investigating suspected torture of detainees was arrested outside while attempting to take photographs. She later died in police custody — allegedly beaten to death. Inside and outside Iran, her case sparked outrage.
"For now, the reform movement has been defeated," said Afshari said. "It is like what has happened in China. Politically, the government puts people under limitations, but gives them a bit more social freedom. What we really want are political rights."
Religious Leaders: Government Has Lost Its Way
Several times since Iran's 1979 revolution, the country's hard-line rulers have flirted with change — in the mid-1980s during the depths of the debilitating Iran-Iraq war and again after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 — allowing slight relaxation of the country's strict Islamic code.
Most recently, the relaxation came after moderate President Khatami won the presidency here in 1997 and pro-reform deputies won a parliamentary majority in 2000. But superficial changes have not led to more lasting political reform.
It is a measure of the internal tensions here that some of the religious leaders who helped lead Iran's Islamic revolution believe the current government has lost its way. Even in Qom, Iran's most conservative Muslim city, there is public dissent.
"The first slogans of the revolution were independence, freedom and Islamic Republic," said Mohammad Ali Ayazi, a professor at one of Qom's most prestigious and conservative religious seminaries. "But all of those slogans are now forgotten and wasted. We should give the right of choice to people. We should allow people to think about any religion, to follow any school of thought. We are not guardians of the people. People should be free."
Those are dangerous opinions, even for a respected mullah. Ayazi has been barred from appearing on Iranian television.
For many Iranians, the December earthquake in the southwestern city of Bam put the government's failures in the sharpest light. Ancient buildings collapsed into dust. Domestic relief efforts were slow. More than 43,000 people were killed.
"As you see in Bam," one student leader told ABCNEWS, "it shows the real face of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the regime. It's a real crisis. It can cut the protests, control everything, limit your freedom, but they cannot help you."
Increasingly, Iranians, especially young people, place equal blame for such failures on the conservatives and the reformers they once had such high hopes in.
"The expectations of the younger generation are very high," said the president's spokesman, Abdollah Ramazan Zadeh. "They have a right to say that they haven't reached what they wanted but we have a right as reformers to say to them that we did not promise them to solve everything."
Still, for many here, the few solutions that have come have been purely superficial, a veil hiding deep divisions over Iran's future.