Thursday, April 27, 2006

Again Iran

I never got back to Iran last week.

An online acquaintance and I were discussing the situation and the solution presented itself...

Iran has a huge population of people under 30 who are growing up in a world that never knew the corruption of the Shah. A commonly repeated fact is that despite the ban on such things, satellite dishes atop the roofs of Tehran beam down Western programming.

One of my professors, Reza Aslan, once wrote a multi-part article about a trip to his homeland Iran. His observations about the youth of Iran, his near-contemporaries, are telling:

Hardly anyone visits the ayatollah's mausoleum anymore. Almost everyone I see is traveling from distant cities. They have stopped here for a stretch, some cool air, and a quick picnic before continuing to Tehran. Yet the shah's palace is bursting with young Iranians, clicking pictures and pointing excitedly at the tawdry furnishings. By the looks on their faces, it seemed obvious that it is not excess and corruption they see, but wealth and power

Teenagers especially have devised ingenious methods of getting around the Islamic Republic's strict ban on intermingling between boys and girls. Because dating is practically unheard of, packs of sexually charged teenagers drive up and down Tehran's busy streets at night indiscriminately flinging their phone numbers at each other on scraps of paper. The papers are collected, phone calls placed, introductions made, and if all goes well, a soiree is planned at someone's house, at a park, or, best of all, at one of the many mountain retreats just outside of the city, where boys and girls can mingle away from the prying eyes of the Basij.

The staggering death toll of the Iran-Iraq War left Iran with an exceptionally young and profoundly discontented population. Indeed, it was primarily their discontent that swept the Reformist President Mohammed Khatami into power with an unprecedented 80 percent of the popular vote. Emboldened by his popular mandate, Khatami launched an audacious liberal agenda. Restrictions were eased, laws finally upheld, and Iran's Basiji thugs reigned in.

Throughout Tehran, women replaced their dull black chadors with fashionable overcoats and flashy, colorful head scarves that barely covered their well-coiffed hair. [...]

"Food court," as it is known throughout Tehran, is the refuge of Iran's next generation. This is the generation born after the revolution. They do not recall life under the Shah and are fed up with the anti-imperialist rhetoric of their elders. They were children during the Iran-Iraq War and have no experience of the horrible sacrifice Iranians were forced to make to keep the revolution alive. They couldn't care less about the revolution. They want what all teenagers want. They want what they see on their satellite stations.

Amid the pizza, burger, pasta, and Tex-Mex stands, boys in jeans and T-shirts ogle made-up girls in stylish designer scarves. Text messages are relayed back and forth between the tables. Seats are exchanged. I'm amazed at the bravado with which they casually mingle with each other.

As I sit typing on my laptop, a tall girl with heavy makeup stops at my table and smiles brightly. "Hello!" she exclaims in overly rehearsed English. "My girlfriends want to know if you will please like to join us for a Coke."

I'm baffled and say nothing. I want to tell her I speak Persian, but I sense the revelation would somehow disappoint her. She taps me on the shoulder and points to a group of cheerful young girls in flashy headscarves stealthily smoking cigarettes and giggling uncontrollably. One of them waves me over, and it occurs to me that this generation will not put up with the clerical noose around their necks much longer.

It is said that where goods cross borders, troops do not. This axiom is not infallible, but it does show the way towards dealing with Iran. Back to my discussion with the acquaintace... We were talking and after exchanging observations regarding the political situation in Iran, the obvious solution was to lift any and all embargoes blocking goods from entering Iran and let trade and tourism do the work that almost thirty years of embargo and isolation had not.

The young people of Iran are not going to wait too much longer before they find their strength and bring about change. The question becomes what will they think of the West, aside from their emulation of Western trends? By opening up, we can offer them friendship while working politically to keep the current president and the Guardian Council in check.

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