One of the most pernicious misunderstandings in the West about Iranians is that they are dour religious fanatics.
About half of Iranians are under the age of 25, and Iran has done a solid job of raising their education levels. I was struck on my 1,700-mile road trip across Iran by how many of them share American values, seeking fun rather than fanaticism. They seem less interested in the mosques than in amusement parks (which are ubiquitous in Iran).
“Young people don’t really go to the mosques,” said a 23-year-old man in eastern Iran, cheerfully exaggerating. “We want more ways to have fun.”
He said he drinks – alcohol is illegal, but everywhere – and, until recently, used drugs. Iranian officials have suggested that perhaps 10 percent of the population uses illegal drugs.
You wouldn’t think a New Yorker could be made to blush in Tehran, but I was taken aback by the hookup scene of one-night stands: Young men with flashy cars troll for women, chat them up and then drive off with them. There is also prostitution, and Tehran’s former police chief was arrested in 2008 in a brothel together with six prostitutes.
Remember that Iran is the homeland not only of stern ayatollahs but also of the romantic hedonism of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” In Richard Le Gallienne’s verse translation: “Did God set grapes a-growing, do you think,/And at the same time make it sin to drink?”
In the 1970s, disgruntled young Iranians rebelled against a corrupt secular regime by embracing an ascetic form of Islam. Now they’re rebelling against a corrupt religious regime by embracing personal freedom – in some cases, even sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
They often also look warmly on the United States, which is quite dizzying. In Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt, we Americans hand out billions of dollars in aid and are often hated. I go to Iran, and people hand me gifts.
This youth culture of Iran is nurtured by the Internet – two-thirds of Iranian households have computers – and by satellite television, which is banned but widespread. A BBG/Gallup phone survey conducted in March found that one-third of Iranians acknowledged watching satellite television in the previous week, and the real number may be much higher.
Pirated music, videos and video games are widespread. One popular – but banned – game is “Battlefield 3,” in which U.S. military forces storm Tehran. In a home I visited, the kids were playing “Grand Theft Auto.”
These young people are Iran’s future, and they can be our allies. But while we have a strategy in nuclear negotiations, I’m not sure we in the West have a strategy for Iran itself.
Western policymakers see Iran as fanatical, the same way they saw China in the 1960s. There was talk back then of a military option against China. And if we had taken that route, Beijing might still be ruled by Maoists – a larger version of North Korea.
My road trip left me convinced that change will come to Iran, too, if we just have the patience not to disrupt the subterranean forces at work: rising education, an expanding middle class, growing economic frustration, erosion of the government monopoly on information.
I think of a young man I met who said wistfully: “It’s normal for a boy and a girl to want to hang out together. What’s wrong with that?”
The romantics are on our side and far outnumber the fanatics. We should bet on them, not bombs, as agents of change.