“What do you (Americans) think about us?” they would repeatedly ask me, which would invariably be followed by a sincere and deeply moving plea, “Please tell them that we are not terrorists.”
Editor’s Note: Today marks the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, an event sure to spark widespread demonstrations. This essay is the first of a four-part series called ‘A Revolution Revisited: Modern Day Iran and its Discontents.’
We’ve all heard the old axiom that a year in politics is, figuratively speaking, an eternity.
When it comes to predicting the future direction of political developments, even in a fairly compressed period of twelve months, it is very much an exercise in either pure conjecture or intuitive divination. That uncertainty is due in no small part to the unforeseen influence exerted by forces, events, and personalities that become inextricably linked in a web of cause and effect whose final byproduct we’ve come to call History. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Iran, a country of 66 million whose vast natural resources and geopolitical relevance have made it a significant player in every major world conflict of the 20th century.
Exactly one year ago, I traveled to Iran for three weeks in an effort to provide a basis for my Master’s thesis covering U.S. Iran policy. My arrival date of January 20 was no coincidence, seeing as I planned to arrive the day Barack Obama would become America’s 44th president. The fact that I was leaving shortly after February 10 was no happenstance either, as that date marked the official 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution and the birth of Iran’s present cleric-based regime. The trip wasn’t solely predicated on these two historical dates. My ultimate motivation for going to Iran was rooted in a need to hear first-hand what ordinary Iranians had to say about their country’s troubled past and its relationship to the U.S., and whether having a newly elected president in the White House mattered to them in any meaningful way.
One of the most fascinating aspects of my visit was the level of interaction I had with young Iranians, a generation that is widely referred to as “the children of the revolution.” The term was coined by the mullah leadership that assumed control of the government in 1979 soon after the student-led takeover of the American embassy in Tehran. As a result, individuals born in either 1979 or 1980 would be labeled as such for the rest of their lives, irrespective of their own views on the revolution that was abruptly foisted upon them. Iranians under the age of thirty comprise 70 percent of the country’s total population, and the so-called children of the revolution are unquestionably the future leaders of this incredibly dynamic society. Born in the immediate aftermath of a bloody revolution, having survived the horrors of the ensuing Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, these people now find themselves at the forefront of a political movement that rivals the very movement their own fathers and mothers participated in thirty years earlier.
As a zealously proud child of the 80’s myself (I was born in December of 1980), I happen to be part of this demographic and had a natural affinity to people my age in Iran. These were the people I randomly met on the streets of Shiraz, Isfahan, Yazd, and Qom. They are people like Hamzeh and Metid, who offered me a motorcycle tour of Tehran at night following the Dahiyee Fajr (Ten Days of Dawn) celebrations in Azadi Square. Or Shima and Piruz, the theater students from Zanjan whom I met while waiting in line to see an Iranian adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and who accompanied me for dinner afterwards. They include individuals I met at coffee shops who shared my passion for Beckett and whom I encountered in an establishment named, quite fittingly, “Waiting for Godot.”
It appears that after decades of obscurity and shrouded mystery, Iran is finally capturing the attention of the American public. The highly contested presidential elections last summer which reinstated the conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as the nation’s president had ripple effects across the world and offered ordinary Americans a different, though continually enigmatic, representation of modern day Iran. A consequence of the news media’s ample coverage of the political fallout of these elections, Iran’s complex power structure and form of government have abruptly entered the American dialogue, with references to the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Khamenei, and former president Rafsanjani becoming routine in any discussion about Iran—at times even overshadowing the names of the two principal candidates.
In spite of the steep learning curve Americans have experienced over the past year, there are many things that we have not yet learned. We have not yet learned what it’s like to excel in some of the best academic institutions in the world, and not have any real prospect of earning a living doing that which we are truly committed to and passionate about. We have not yet learned what it’s like to look at our country’s past with nostalgia and our present with regret, not fully grasping the long-term consequences of our actions or inactions for our future and, more importantly, that of our children. In brief, we have not yet learned what it’s like to be an ordinary Iranian.
One year ago, no one could have predicted the situation we are witnessing today in Iran. To be sure, there have been instances of political upheaval in the past which challenged the government’s often authoritative and repressive actions. The imprisonments, the crackdown on social liberties, the quelling of a burgeoning free press have always been familiar attributes of the Islamic revolution’s thirty year narrative. What is truly different about Iran today is precisely the role played by these so-called children of the revolution. These are the people making the cover of Time magazine draped in green, the color of the opposition, brandishing not AK-47’s but seemingly innocuous peace signs. They are the ones climbing on rooftops under the cover of night yelling God is Great and Down with the Dictator, taking ownership of the very chants that three decades ago propelled to power the same Islamic leadership they are challenging today.
Every single Iranian I encountered from this age group seemed to be concerned with one question more than any other. “What do you (Americans) think about us?” they would repeatedly ask me, which would invariably be followed by a sincere and deeply moving plea, “Please tell them that we are not terrorists.” Being placed in the extremely uncomfortable position of speaking on behalf of the most powerful nation in the world, I would reassure them, perhaps not convincingly, that Americans thought no such thing and that our views in their regard were largely positive. That we knew of their love for our movies, their knowledge of our history, and the appreciation they felt for the limitless sense of possibility that makes America what it is to billions of people the world over. I didn’t have the heart to tell them the brutal truth. That far worse than having a negative opinion about them and their culture, we had no opinion at all.
What I have described is nothing more than a small glimpse into modern day Iran. Having the privilege of meeting so many Iranians on their own soil, in their own terms, I felt obligated to share their stories with the foreign audience they most care about. As Americans, we should not forget the very human element that is so central to the Iran question. We should not forget that the most vibrant and dynamic generation in the Middle East is ready, and indeed worthy, to realize its promise of self-fulfillment.