July 27, 2007


Khomeini's children: Not happy, but probably not eager to become Westernised either (The Economist, 7/19/07)

[M]any of the smartly dressed young people of Tehran seem quite unmoved (some are amused) by the official hate-mongering. They do not admire George Bush. But to judge by dress, behaviour, viewing and consumption habits—and even more by the regime's terror of a creeping “Westoxification”—they do admire at least some of America's ways.

Not surprisingly, the attitudes of the young are a source of anxiety to the revolution's managers. Young people and especially university students played a significant part in bringing down the shah, and now there are many more of them. The population has doubled since 1979, which means that two out of three Iranians are under the age of 30 and fewer than one in three can remember the revolution. Young Iranians are also much better educated these days: literacy is near-universal and the student population has soared. The demographic surge has been accompanied by rapid urbanisation: seven out of ten Iranians now live in cities.

The young suffer disproportionately from the regime's failures. In 2006, by the government's own reckoning, nearly every other Iranian between the ages of 25 and 29 was unemployed. A lack of jobs is no doubt one reason for the prevalence of heroin addiction and other social ills. In this nominally austere society, alcohol is consumed widely, even though it is illegal for Muslims. Prostitution is widespread.

Will the disaffection of the young bring down the regime? That is what those outsiders who see the Islamic Republic as a crude despotism lacking popular support sincerely hope. But how many Iranians see their regime that way? It seems highly likely that if the government continues to thwart the aspirations of young voters, they will punish it at the next election. Yet it would be a terrible mistake to assume that every youthful, fast-urbanising country facing economic hardship must be eager to throw off its regime and embrace Western values.

Iran remains a strongly religious society. Though the proportion of city-dwellers has soared, they are different from the atomised individualists of Europe or North America: the extended family and traditional social networks have survived even in teeming Tehran. And though the government is not popular, most Iranians seem to accept its right to govern. One sign that millions continue to have faith in the country's institutions is that more than 60% of eligible voters turned out in the presidential elections of 2005, at a time of deep cynicism following the blocking of President Khatami's political reforms.

A year ago an American firm, Zogby International, polled Iranians on a range of issues by phoning in from abroad. At that time 41% of those polled said the country's top priority should be the economy, 27% thought developing nuclear weapons was more important and only 23% put more freedom at the top of their list. Those who wanted Iran to become more religious and conservative (36%) outnumbered those who wanted it to become more secular and liberal (31%). However, in a similar poll last month by “Terror Free Tomorrow”, an American think-tank, 88% saw the economy as the top priority, compared with 29% who listed nuclear weapons. And 79% said they would prefer a democratic system in which all leaders, including the supreme leader, were elected by a direct popular vote.

Given that Iranians are naturally wary about what they tell strangers on the phone, these are striking results. They underline the regime's economic vulnerability.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 27, 2007 9:17 AM

... not eager to become Westernised either. Just give them the freedom and then jump out of the way.

Posted by: erp at July 28, 2007 11:56 AM