Middle East


The Weapon for Change in Iran

Post-election turmoil in Tehran in 2009. (Photo: Amirali Radjai, Dreamstime.com)

"Death to America" has been the rallying cry of Iran's Islamic Revolution since the late 70s, and images of Iranian radicals chanting the regime's favorite slogan have made a lasting impression in American minds.

But there is a huge misunderstanding in the West about Iranians as religious fanatics. For many young Iranians, hatred of their own government is all consuming, and they stand fiercely against the corrupt religious regime. So why wouldn't we consider anyone who hates the current Iranian regime as possible allies?

Seventy percent of Iran's 74 million people are under 35 and have no real memory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Fifty percent of the Iranian population is under 25 and very well educated. Many of these young people joined the democracy protests in 2009, but were severely beaten and are now afraid to speak out against their country. While the 2009 demonstrations didn't lead to an Egypt-style revolution, they did permanently alter the landscape of Iranian politics.

To the dismay of the Iranian government, and despite their strong arming tactics, their youth often look upon the United States, if not warmly, at least with some jealousy. Many young Iranians have access to the Internet and satellite television, which is banned but still widely used. And they long for what Americans enjoy: freedom, liberty, equality and justice. They often describe themselves as the "burnt generation," and many young Iranian bloggers say they await the opportunity to once again take to the streets to express their disapproval of their spiritual leadership's aggressive policies.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors conducted a phone survey in March and reported that over one third of Iranians watch satellite television. The Iranian police go house to house and take the dishes away, but most do not issue any fines. Pirated music, videos and video games are also widespread. Many Iranian youths push the legal limits sometimes to a breaking point. Millions go to websites such as Facebook that are blocked by the government but accessible to anyone with some technical knowledge. Iran is one of the most tech-savvy societies in the developing world, with an estimated 28 million Internet users, led by youth.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, "Iranian youth are among the most politically active in the 57 nations of the Islamic world and represent one of the greatest long-term threats to the current form of theocratic rule. Iran's youth are increasingly pivotal to elections. After the 1979 revolution, the voting age was lowered to 15, but later raised to 16 then 18, as the theocrats recognized the youth's political power. The young constitute nearly 40 percent of the electorate, a number expected to grow over the next decade. Whether they vote, and how, will be a major factor in the 2013 parliamentary elections, the regime's next official test."

Iran is one of the youngest societies in the world, skewing politics, the economy and social pressures, and the sheer number of well-educated youth is one of the biggest threats to the current regime. But even with a university degree, it takes two to three years to find a job, and many are chronically unemployed, left frustrated, angry and ready for change. According to the IMF, Iran has one of the world's highest rates of brain drain.

In April, Al Arabiya News reported, "The increasing infighting between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad has given even more hope to the many young Iranians in the pro-democracy movement. The infighting between these leaders is more than an indication of their lack of popular support. It is a sign of their weakness and myopia, not to mention a golden opportunity for young reformers to swoop in. It may happen during the next presidential election in mid-2013 or it may happen sooner, but whatever the case, sometime soon political power will land in the laps of young Iranians. When it does, change will follow. In the meantime, the children of the Islamic Revolution are still stirring, and as the old chaps fight among themselves, young women and men are setting the stage for a new day in Iranian politics."

Rising education, erosion of government restrictions on information and an expanding middle class are the key to change in Iran. Given some time to let the young mature and have children of their own, Iran could become more like Turkey in the future.

So while the U.S. purports to have a strategy for nuclear negotiations, why is there no strategy for wooing the young in Iran?

A war with Iran will only strengthen the hatred Iranians have for the West, including the on-the-fence burnt generation. The West should consider using the Iranian youth—not bombs—as their weapon for change.

Ms. Teri Schure is the founder of Worldpress.org, lectures on issues pertaining to publishing, and is a consultant in the magazine, web development and marketing industries.

Check out Teri Schure’s blog The Teri Tome.