“I don’t compare myself with ten years ago. I compare myself to what I could have and don’t”. So spoke Tannaz, a 20-year-old university student to a New York Times reporter touring Iran. “There’s no joy here,” she said, summarizing the feeling of the first generation of Iranians to grow up exclusively in the Islamic Republic. Iranians of Tannaz’s generation and mine speak of their hopes “melting” as Iran’s leaders replaced reform with a renewed revolutionary trance.
Iran’s youth represent 70 percent of Iran’s population of 70 million. It is the only pro-American generation in the Middle East. And, it is ready for democracy. As the Joyless Generation awakes, the theocracy shudders. And so does Islamism throughout the region. The Joyless Generation may not abandon their religion in their lives, but even in the cradle of theocracy, they do believe that it should not be in the realm of the state.
Each week since the Islamic Revolution a quarter century ago, a prominent cleric has led public prayers and delivered the official state sermon. On Friday, May 13, 2004, it was the turn of Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, secretary of the Council of Guardians. The Council of Guardians is the body that determines who can participate in an election, and who is banned from Iran’s “democracy”. Delivering his sermon, Jannati spoke to the new parliamentarians who owe their positions to his approval. “Creating jobs is among the economic issues of priority”, Jannati told them. “If the people are hungry they would hardly resist the difficulties and enemies.”
In other words, Iran’s leadership no longer speaks of political reform. Instead, the clerics will concentrate on economic problems, falsely believing that Iranians will then surrender their quest for freedom. Ironically, it is Jannati and his close political allies, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Expediency Council chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who are most responsible for the Islamic Republic’s economic catharsis. In the 1980s, under their stewardship, Iran experienced “one of the sharpest economic declines in the twentieth century”, according to a leading analyst. Simultaneously, they encouraged a “jihad” baby boom and promoted an “autarkic Islamic economy”. Two decades later, Jannati and his fellow clerics face an army of the unemployed that increases at a rate of 800,000 persons per year.
Jannati alludes to what every Iranian knows. The Islamic Republic’s enemies are not external, but rather internal: The Joyless Generation. Iran’s leaders are so insecure that they imprison students like Ahmed Batebi, languishing in prison for the crime of being photographed holding his own bloody shirt in the wake of a police beating. What is joy and tolerance to Tannaz and her generation is “cultural corruption” to Jannati. For all practical purposes, Jannati and Tannaz don’t speak the same Persian. Tannaz’s belief in the bankruptcy of the Islamic Republic’s system represents the views of perhaps seventy percent of Iranian society; Jannati’s uncompromising attitude is shared by only ten percent. The remaining 20 percent might still hold out some hope that the Islamic Republic is capable of reform, but this group diminishes daily.
Iran’s post-revolutionary generation is aware of basic realities: the irreconcilability of theocracy with reform, whether economic as preached by Rafsanjani, or political as preached by President Mohammad Khatami. Theocracy corrupts not only the temporal sphere but also spiritual spheres. It is the Islamic Republic’s ideology which prevents the Iranian people from fulfilling their desire to join the concert of nations. Such awareness is the cornerstone upon which a new Iran can be built. A free Iran can be the keystone to regional reform.
At a time when there is growing consensus to support a “Middle East forum to bring together governments, businesses, and non-governmental organizations” to discuss reform, as reported by the Washington Post, acknowledgement of the waves of change in Iran would be a sure investment. Support for Iran’s Joyless Generation, rather than any faction within the Islamic Republic’s leadership, would bring a high rate of return in terms of both prosperity and security.
A democratic Iran in harmony with the world and its own historic and cultural heritage will be a significant step forward on the path towards stability in the Middle East. Security and democracy, intertwined with rights for men and women, are twin necessities.
Iran is experiencing a new dawn. The Iranian people are looking Westward for support. The choice is clear: Jannati or Tannaz. There can be no hybrid between the two. There can be no détente with the theocracy. There can be no Chinese model, in which the West bolsters trade but allows a small clique of rulers to stifle political change. It’s time for the West to decide. Will Iran become a regional model of democracy, or will Washington’s willingness to engage with theocrats cause it to lose the support of a generation?
–Ramin Parham, editor of Iran Institute for Democracy, is an independent commentator based in Paris.