24 November 2014 marks the day on which the 12-year impasse regarding trade sanctions imposed to restrain Iran’s nuclear programme is to end. In 2002, the country’s opposition group revealed secret government activity including the construction of a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy-water reactor at Arak. The West, not unreasonably, fears that Iran wants to use its potential programme for offensive purposes, even though Iran says its nuclear fuel and technology developments are exclusively to be used for power plants and scientific research. Following concerns, Iran agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But the IAEA was unable to come to a concrete conclusion due to the uncertainty behind Iran’s motivations, even after close examination.
Nonetheless, Iran is changing, causing its focus to shift too. Oil is the government’s primary source of income, yet since the country’s oil exports declined dramatically to half their former levels, Iran was left in a predicament. The recent 25 per cent fall in the oil price is straining the oil-dependent economy, which after shrinking 5.8 per cent in 2012 is in dire need of international commerce and diversification. But American hopes to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East also meant that engaging in international trade with the US and its allies has become difficult. Iran’s new president, Mr Hassan Rouhani, needs relief from sanctions. His government has hinted at a trade-off: American support for a nuclear programme would secure Iranian help in the Middle East. Here, the US can only lose. If such an agreement with Shia Iran were to be made, America would risk serious repercussions from its Sunni allies in Saudi Arabia and from the Sunnis it is currently trying to negotiate with in Iraq and Syria. And yet, if Iran’s official stance on the nuclear programme is true, it could push the country further towards modernity and away from its troubled history.
Majority of the democratic world mistrusts Iran and it is not difficult to find examples as to why. From hanging a woman for killing the man she accused of molesting her to financing terrorist and militia groups in Lebanon and Palestine, much of what Iran does is wrong. And yet, the rest of the world has been so heavily disconnected from Iran since its revolution that it has failed to notice how much the country’s people have changed. The regime may wish to continue to barricade itself against western influence, but its economic dilemma rules against puritanism; Iran desperately needs globalisation in order to stabilise its economy. Revolutionary vehemence has disappeared. The ‘two phases’ of revolution, first the struggle for freedom and then the consequent struggle for power, have passed and transitioned into a struggle for acceptance.
In both the domestic and international policy landscape, Iran is divided. Children of revolutionaries are seeking external recognition in the light of an obstinate government. The hope is to gain access to international education and Asian consumers markets, but their endeavours are met with hesitancy. However, it is the Iranian youth, which has welcomed Western habits including social networks – the good and the questionable. They have incorporated consumer goods, beauty ideals and even gender roles. Though the Iranian culture is still prevalent, the traditional society that served as the vision for the revolution is slowly ebbing away.
Earlier this year the Instagram and Facebook page ‘Rich Kids of Tehran’ emerged showing how radically their lives contrast with majority of the population – never mind that the latter social medium is banned alongside Twitter. Photos of their Maseratis and pictures of girls in their bikinis, provide a clear indication of how the social freedom of Iran’s people differs greatly according to family endowments. And yet, those who have had similar kinds of liberty have also used it admirably. Seven of the 15 grandchildren of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the revolution, have openly criticised the regime whilst many of the children of even the most conservative Iranians have travelled and studied abroad. In an official statement, Ebrahim Asgharazdeh, who was the spokesmen of the students who took American diplomats hostage 35 years ago, expressed his concerns about the drastic consequences, which inevitably arose from the violent conflict. Gradual reforms, he had come to learn, “last longer than radical change”.
Although Iran’s population is slowly integrating more democratic and liberal models into their daily lives, many are aware of the socio-political labyrinth that halts official progress to basic human rights such as the freedom from fear. The nuclear programme serves as a symbol of national strength at a time of perplexing social changes. Reformists are tired after their failed attempt in 2009 to push aside a government they considered illegitimate because the vote was rigged. Protests ended in bloodshed and recollections of the despair that reigned after the revolution resurfaced. Conservatives now consider another revolution a risk to their interests abroad, whilst their primary trading partners, Iraq and Syria, are stuck in a spiral of fighting rebellions driven by their populations’ feelings of repression. The political instability and emotional volatility of its neighbours does not yield to Iran’s favour vis-à-vis nuclear power talks, but Iran’s comparative constancy makes the question its government’s validity negligible. Many of the ethnic Persian majority consider the Iranian revolution a national liberation from foreign oppression.
Prosperity grew in Iran during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight-year presidency. Billions of dollars generated by oil deluged the poor via loans, handouts and social-housing programmes, even if completely corrupt and inefficiently implemented. GDP per capita (at purchasing-power parity) tripled in twenty years, causing a flow of migration from villages into big cities. A middle class emerged. But Iran remains a perpetual paradox. Media continues to be controlled by the state on one hand and yet foreign websites such as Tehran Bureau easily supply uncensored news through virtual private networks. The lack of free information is creating rising tensions among young Iranians. VPNtrepreneurs selling software and access codes to evade restrictions quickly ensued. Fuelled by the rising levels in education, people have learned to play the game its government is trying so hard to win.
But the expansion in the education system, particularly the policies implemented to aid poor and rural families, has become a catalyst for independent thinking. During the last election’s campaigning process, much of the debate was dedicated to recognising which candidate had the necessary momentum to drive the economy forwards whilst religion was considered to lose votes, even among conservatives. It is clear that ideology has become of secondary importance in Iranian politics. The brutal idealism that once ruled the past has become a minority interest; mass mobilisation and indoctrination are no longer a priority. In fact, Mr Rohani’s administration consists of a plethora of academics and has more PhDs from American universities than the American government. Despite promising indicators, it is far from certain whether Iran is truly moving to a more peaceful, stable and democratic future.