Those fun-loving Iranians
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THE CASPIAN SEA, Iran
One of the most pernicious misunderstandings in the West about Iranians is that they are dour religious fanatics.
About half of Iranians are under the age of 25, and Iran has done a solid job of raising their education levels. I was struck after traveling 1,700 miles across Iran by how many of them share American values, seeking fun rather than fanaticism. They seem less interested in the mosques than in amusement parks.
"Young people don't really go to the mosques," said a 23-year-old man in eastern Iran, cheerfully exaggerating. "We want more ways to have fun."
He said he drinks -- alcohol is illegal but ubiquitous -- and, until recently, used drugs. This man joined the 2009 democracy protests, but then, he said, he was detained and beaten for days, losing a tooth. That soured him on political activism, and, like many others, he now just wants to go abroad.
In the northwest, that sense of hopelessness has led some young Iranians of ethnic Turkish origin to favor seceding and joining Azerbaijan. In soccer games in Tabriz, fans sometimes outrage the authorities by roaring secessionist slogans.
You wouldn't think a New Yorker could be made to blush in Tehran, but I was taken aback by the hookup scene of one-night stands: Young men with flashy cars troll for women, chat them up and then drive off with them. Tehran's former police chief was arrested in 2008 in a brothel together with six prostitutes.
Remember that Iran is the homeland not only of stern ayatollahs but also of the romantic hedonism of "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam." In Richard Le Gallienne's translation:
Did God set grapes a-growing, do you think,
And at the same time make it sin to drink?
In the 1970s, disgruntled young Iranians rebelled against a corrupt secular regime by embracing an ascetic form of Islam. Now they're rebelling against a corrupt religious regime by embracing personal freedom -- even sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
This youth culture of Iran is nurtured by the Internet -- two-thirds of households have computers -- and by satellite television, which is banned but widespread. "The effect of satellite TV is very big," said one young woman who said that she was initially aghast when she saw fellow Muslim women in Turkey wearing bikinis but gradually decided that there was more than one way to live.
Police confiscate satellite dishes and can fine homeowners as much as $400 for having them, but they're not very efficient. "You recognize that it's the police taking the dishes away, and you just don't answer the door," said a shop owner in Gorgan. "So they take the dish and just go away" without imposing the fine.
Pirated music, videos and video games are widespread. One popular -- but banned -- game now is Battlefield 3, in which U.S. military forces storm Tehran.
These young people are Iran's future, and they can be our allies. But while we have a strategy in nuclear negotiations, I'm not sure we in the West have a strategy for Iran itself.
Western policymakers see Iran as fanatical, the same way they saw China in the 1960s. There was talk back then of a military option against China, and if we had taken that route, Beijing might still be ruled by Maoists -- a larger version of North Korea.
My road trip across Iran leaves me convinced that change will come here, too, if we just have the patience not to disrupt the subterranean forces at work: rising education, an expanding middle class, growing economic frustration, erosion of the government monopoly on information. My hunch is that if there is no war between Iran and the West -- which would probably strengthen the regime -- hard-liners will go the way of Mao, and Iran will end up looking something like Turkey.
I think of a young man I met who said wistfully: "It's normal for a boy and a girl to want to hang out together. What's wrong with that?"
The romantics are on our side and far outnumber the fanatics. We should bet on them, not bombs, as agents of change.
First Published June 22, 2012 12:00 am