An iconic image from 2015 is of young Iranians dancing in the streets of Tehran when news of a preliminary framework agreement with the West on Iran’s nuclear program was announced. There was genuine hope among a younger generation of Iranians that the nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would usher in a new era of economic improvement and greater people-to-people contact between Iran and the West.
Although much has happened in the intervening years, particularly during the Trump presidency, which saw US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and an overall decline in US-Iran relations, a 2019 poll showed that 57 percent of Iranians were dissatisfied with their own government’s performance on improving ties with the United States and the West.
At the same time, there has been growing opposition among Iranians to the country’s political system. In one poll, some 79 percent of respondents said they would vote “no” if a free and fair referendum were held on a continuation of the Islamic Republic. In another poll, taken shortly before the March 2020 parliamentary elections, 68 percent of respondents said they did not plan to vote.
Popular disaffection has continued right up to the present. In the run up to the June 18 presidential elections, only 34 percent of Iranians indicated they would vote. In the end, voter turnout was reported at approximately 37%, the lowest recorded in the Islamic Republic’s history. This, perhaps, is not surprising since the Council of Guardians, which vets presidential and parliamentary candidates, approved only 8 candidates for president, 6 of whom are hardliners. The ultra-conservative cleric and judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, who is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, won.
Iranians are not only upset with their political system and choice of candidates but with their economic status. The cost of food and housing is prohibitively high when compared with an average wage earner’s salary. Even for middle class Iranians, who earn on average $400 to $700 a month, income cannot keep pace with inflation. Many are falling into poverty.
Favorable views of the United States have decreased largely because of the imposition of sanctions, yet a majority of Iranians support US-Iranian talks if the US returns to the JCPOA and lifts sanctions. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that Iranians blame their own government more than the United States for their predicament, noting the loss of resources due to corruption and foreign adventures. In a 2019 poll, some 57 percent of Iranians voiced the opinion that the economy is run by “a few big interests.” During anti-regime protests in the 2017-2019 period, the protestors refused to step on American flags that the regime placed as props. Some of the protestors chanted: “Our enemy is right here; they lie when they say it is America.”
That Iranians, particularly of the younger generation, want interaction with the United States is evident by their use of technology. About 57 million Iranians (out of a total population of 80 million) are internet users, with 47 million active on social media. Persian is the 9th most used language online in the world, all the more revealing when one considers that this language is spoken by just 2 percent of the world’s population. The high-rate of internet and communication technology (ICT) suggests that Iranians want greater exposure to and interaction with the West. Moreover, with many Iranians, especially middle-class young people, getting their news from sources outside the country, regime narratives fall on deaf ears or are accepted by elements that are undereducated or who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Approximately 60 percent of Iran’s population is under the age of 30. Young Iranians are educated and technologically-savvy. They are Iran’s future and should be supported by foreign policy influentials who want to see change and political liberalization in the country. It would be prudent for US policymakers to pursue a course of action that separates the regime from the people and to think about a long-term strategy that capitalizes on opportunities presented by changing demographics. To be sure it is not in the interest of the United States to alienate the very people who yearn for better ties.
Getting back into the JCPOA is a start. Should the talks currently being held in Vienna succeed, Trump era sanctions would be lifted, and bilateral relations improved. But the Biden administration needs to do more. Promoting and not just giving lip service to business deals between American and Iranian firms after a nuclear deal is reached would bring more jobs and technology to Iran and have the added benefit of more people-to-people interaction. In addition, there should be more cultural and athletic exchanges between the two countries (some of this was done several years ago but has since been in abeyance) as another way of improving public diplomacy. For example, Iranian filmmakers and artists should be granted visas to come to the United States to interact with American counterparts, which could result in reciprocal visits by Americans. Museums in the United States should be encouraged to showcase Iran’s rich cultural heritage. Virtual tours of the exhibits should be made accessible to Iranians demonstrating Americans’ appreciation of their culture, which would reap enormous benefits in good will.
These measures would improve the image of the United States in Iran, increase the hopes of millions of Iranian young people for a better economic and, potentially, political future, and underscore the value of more amicable relations with the west.
Gregory Aftandilian is an Adjunct Professor in the School of International Service at American University.