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The U.S. Needs to Look to Iran’s Youth and Future

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.

Rising Tension in the Gulf Could Have Dire Consequences

There is real fear that the current face-off between Iran and the United States in the Persian Gulf can lead to war. While seemingly unthinkable, as was war in the heart of Europe roughly a century ago, many of the same ingredients are present. The mistrust and hate each side harbors inevitably lead to fear, which can lead to violent confrontation. All that’s necessary is a spark to ignite a destructive conflagration.

Do not underestimate the potential for disaster in the region.  Once again, the antagonists are at it accusing one another of violations of treaties and agreements and finger pointing in all directions. Despite all the reporting about recent events, we still don’t know for certain who is behind the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The US and Israel accuse Iran, who in turn accuses them. The Iranian downing of a US drone has just raised the tension level several degrees.

Perhaps we should examine which countries stand to benefit and which stand to lose from mayhem and escalation of tension in the region.

The list of usual suspects is long, and includes the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and France, and to a lesser degree Iraq. These are all key actors with vital strategic, political and economic interests in the Gulf region. They all stand to gain, to a certain extent, from escalating the tension and possibly even going to war. Yes, one more war in the Middle East, regrettably, is a possibility.

Some in the region believe that another war might well provide the American president with a golden opportunity to escape his ever-growing problems at home and deflect attention from the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Iran too might find that going to war with the ‘Great Satan’ will allow the mullahs to clamp down on those calling for greater reform. Additionally, with substantial war fighting experience in Iraq and Syria, hawks in Tehran might be tempted to put hard learned lessons to the test.

When asked by a reporter on Monday if he thought the United States would be going to war with Iran, President Trump replied, “I hope not.”  Both sides have good reason to be wary.

Anyone with knowledge of the region can guarantee that another violent conflict will be highly destructive and very costly.

Saudi Arabia has been telling anyone willing to listen about the dangers that Iran presents to the stability of the Gulf. The Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates, see themselves as the only real deterrent to Iranian aspirations in the region, albeit with the US playing a central role.

Russia would like to see the US embroiled in another Mideast conflict because it would further drain US resources and ultimately weaken Washington’s standing in the Middle East, leaving the field wide open for Moscow to step in, as was the case in Syria.

The regime in Israel can only benefit from a US war with Iran because it would relieve political pressure on the current leadership and potentially boost its standing among voters in a new round of elections. And, finally, France is making a killing selling arms to Saudi Arabia and to the UAE, amongst others. According to figures released this week, France’s weapons sales to Saudi Arabia rose 50 percent in 2018 despite the government calling for an end to the “dirty war” in Yemen.

As happened in the Balkans a little over a hundred years ago, a seemingly small incident can set off an unanticipated chain of events with calamitous consequences.


Claude Salhani is a regular columnist with The Arab Weekly and a senior associate at the Institute of World Affairs



Tehran Tangled in Web of Disinformation

When the mullahs took control of Iran, they banned dancing, music and much of the social contact between the sexes, among a slew of other activities that are generally considered normal behaviour in the rest of the world.

Since then the situation has somewhat improved, though the country remains very much under the control of the theocracy, which, though somewhat more lenient, continues to frown on anything even remotely resembling what they refer to as “Western decadence.”

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