IRAN: Oil, Grandeur and a Challenge to the West

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No other member of the club of suddenly wealthy oil nations is advanced enough or populous enough to match Iran's projected scale of social and economic growth over the next two decades. Certainly no other oil power has a leader quite as visionary and energetic in his planning. Even though the Shah's ambitious plans for Iran are barely under way, the country has already achieved such a pre-eminent place in the Middle East that businessmen and diplomats alike are beating a jet-pattern path to the Shah's door.

Great Civilization. Important visitors, naturally, are granted audiences with the man who makes the decisions. The Shah was educated in Switzerland and has traveled widely abroad; he converses with his visitors as fluently in French or English as in Farsi, the principal Iranian language. In any of the three tongues, he can evangelistically describe his goals for Iran's "Great Civilization"—a phrase redolent of the American "New Frontier" and "Great Society" of the '60s. When the civilization matures, the Shah believes, it will turn Iran into the "Japan of West Asia" —a Third World miracle the like of which has not been witnessed since West Germany's Wirtschaftswunder.

Already oil money has begun to transform Iran into an empire of paradoxes. The old Persia remains for those who seek it: the Qashqai tribe in the southwest still graze their cattle in the Zagros Mountains and locate water in a 1,000-year-old system of interconnected wells known as qanats. In Tehran entrepreneurs who make $50,000 a day take jet flights to Europe to complete a business deal (and see banned-in-Iran movies like Last Tango in Paris) or perhaps buy a vacation villa in Provence.

Some of the wives of these new middle-class millionaires, who celebrate Women's Emancipation Day each February and can divorce their husbands as easily as men once could divorce wives under Islamic law, are dressed by Balenciaga and Dior. But on the street they pass other women who still wear the traditional speckled chador, or robe of modesty. The bustling streets of Tehran are so clogged with automobiles, including the made-in-Iran Paykan (Hillman) and Chevrolet Iran (Opel) as well as double-decked Leyland transit buses, that the city has belatedly begun to consider building a mass-transit system.

Contradiction leaps out everywhere in Iran nowadays. In Tehran, the mud huts of the poor lie hard by the condominiums of the rich. In the bazaars of Isfahan, a merchant accustomed to dealing with Iranians is likely to find himself negotiating simultaneously with a Russian steel-mill technician and an American helicopter expert.

The glue that holds this disparate society together is the Shahanshah. "Who built your new mosque?" the headman of the village of Hesar Khorvan on the slopes of the Elburz Mountains is asked. "The Shah, of course," he answers firmly. For the bourgeois Tehrani, the Shah has grown to be a kind of imperial security blanket. "The middle class has become dependent on him," says one businessman. "They feel secure. They don't know what might come their way if he were not around, and that makes them pro-regime."

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