A prominent piece in last week’s Time magazine, entitled “Fast Times In Tehran,” jogged another memory from a trip to Iran just prior to Sept. 11, 2001.
The Time piece tells of how the autocratic mullahs have managed to buy off – using rising oil revenues – a younger generation increasingly more sybaritic than smoldering. Through more subsidies on more commodities, some relaxed social mores and generous loan policies, the government has – for now, at least – largely co-opted organized political dissent.
The expected election of pragmatic establishment fixture – read: cunning centrist – Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as president underscores the political torpor. There will be no groundswells of affection for the departing and disappointing Mohammed Khatami, the would-be reformer and lame-duck bust, after two ineffectual terms.
And yet there is the sense that the despotic regime, in buying off a generation may have bought less time than it supposes.
I harken back to a conversation in a shop in an Isfahan bazaar. It still resonates.
It’s a perspective on the U.S. – as well as Iranian youth – from Akbar Heshani, a well-traveled, educated, English-fluent carpet merchant. Heshani’s worldview is of someone who has lived in the West and visited world capitals worth visiting.
“First of all, I think America is a great country, and I love Americans. I think a lot of Iranians would say the same thing.
“But there’s also a lot – at least to me – that doesn’t make good sense. You have more freedoms than we do, and I won’t kid you, a lot of average Iranians would like more access to the internet, better television and videos, wine to drink at a restaurant, and so forth.
“But we don’t think, quite honestly, that Americans handle their freedoms with responsibility. Your ‘free press,’ is also free to pander to the worst in human nature. In fact, they helped make the (1979-80) hostage situation, which was shameful and regrettable, much worse by playing to the crowd, which was the same 500 students night after night at the (U.S.) embassy. Your entertainment media gets violent and pornographic, and it’s reflected in kids getting murdered in your schools. With a ban on alcohol, we don’t have Iranians killing each other on the highways.
“I know this seems so repressive to Americans, but we don’t want your excesses.
“But as for our young people, who weren’t around for the Revolution, I think they would like some excess. I guess all young people do.”
For all its nuclear nationalism and post-shah “Great Satan” rhetoric, Iran isn’t the tribal, jihadi-crazed mess that is Iraq. Nor is it the xenophobic basket case with nukes that is North Korea. And it’s not pseudo-ally Saudi Arabia, the infidel-hating epicenter of radical Islamic Wahhabism.
Frankly, there is legitimate hope that when the educated, consumption-enamored Axis of Envy generation finally comes of governing age, it will move to reduce theocratic excesses to symbolic trappings and assert itself as a mature global player – not a rogue religious state.
There is still a very viable future for Iranians – Persians – who don’t want to be a global filling station and don’t see the West as neo-Crusaders. Nor do they want to repeal the last dozen centuries.
Amid all the Islamic subplots – including those involving our corrupt, undemocratic, ostensible friends – the next generation in Iran may be our best bet to avoid a zero-sum religious war. These are people we ultimately should be able to work with. There is reason for optimism. They like our excesses.