Millennial Iran: Change or status quo?

Domestically, nationalism in Iran is high as it has produced some of the greatest artists, physicians, poets, and mathematicians that history has ever seen and Iranians see themselves as still being able to contribute to those rich traditions in the future.

This nationalism has been at odds, however, with the “revolutionary” state that emerged out of the Islamic Revolution, as Iran began to base many of its domestic and foreign policy decisions on Islamic objectives versus Persian cultural ones. Long a contributor, culturally, on the world stage, it has been Iran’s willingness to support and often-times forge various radical Islamic Shia movements in its own image that ultimately led to its isolation from the world stage.

Initially, post-revolution, the Islamic Republic Party dominated within all branches of government. In the years since, however, this has radically changed and there are now literally hundreds of various groups all vying for a piece of the pie. The core issue between the various factions more recently has been split along the divide of whether to create a state based on a purity of Islamic principles and to lead the way for Islamic nations against the West or to create an Islamic state that is independent but also interacts with the larger global community economically and politically on more friendly terms. In the years directly following the revolution, Iranian policy was driven mainly via the hardline conservative side of the house. This approach, however, is under attack, as the recent JCPOA indicates.

The new millenial generation of Iranians, as the revolution moves further into the rear-view mirror, is pushing for a return of Iran to its cultural place in the world and an improvement of the economic situation. The most recent election of President Rouhani, who ran on a moderate platform, would appear to indicate this generational shift. Rouhani’s election was seen as a direct reflection of the Iranian public’s growing impatience with the economic hardships brought on by decades of sanctions and political exile from the global community and served as a warning shot to the hardline conservatives. Running counter to this is the Ayatollah’s concern for both ensuring that he remains firmly in power and that he can groom his successor. Given the widespread pressure towards reform and the widening splits in political parties, the appointment of the next supreme leader will undoubtedly be a controversial but crucial transition.

Strategically to the outside world Iran occupies an important geographical space. That it possesses immense oil and natural gas reserves and controls access to the main oil routes out of the Arabian Gulf has made it a ripe target for foreign intrusion over the course of history. It is also a major bridge between Asia, Europe and the Middle East, so good relations with Iran is essential to a number of the surrounding states. As a result Iran has often resisted attempts at coercion globally, especially when it came to Western nations, as that was viewed as an attempt to control Iran against its own best interests. Because of this much of what fuels its bitter political policies toward Western powers is based on the perceived “meddling” of various foreign entities in its affairs pre-revolution. The paranoia against outsiders, like the CIA having a hand interfering internally in Iran, is used by those in power in Tehran to control uprisings and label them as being under the direction of these outside agents. Additionally, although Persian and proud of that distinction, Iranians possess many of the same traits found in Arab tribal culture, which can create opportunities for internal dissension and manipulation. This has always stunted the rise of a true opposition force within the country.

The need to balance the social and economic needs of the people while keeping intact revolutionary ideology is essential to the Ayatollah retaining his position at the top of the pile. As we’ve seen in other Arab states in the region there is tremendous pressure from within to “westernize” or at least engage the global community. The younger generation in these nations has a tremendous will to participate in modern technologies that come directly into conflict with the more conservative ways of the ruling religious faction. To prevent internal strife the religious leaders of Iran must find ways to adapt and accommodate their people. The fear here is that in doing so it creates a radicalization on both ends of the spectrum, which is evidenced all over the region.

On the religious side factions like ISIS, the Taliban, and al Qaida resisted the influx of western values and culture and used the poverty created by years of sanctions and war as propaganda against the West, while those who seek to increase ties to Western outsiders simultaneously exert ever greater stress on the ruling institutions with their demands and needs. On this opposite side we see many young students, women, and others who have been either oppressed or are simply tired of the poor conditions openly revolting against leaders who would seek to keep them isolated. Leaders on both sides within Iran appear to be walking a fine line as they work through discussions with the West. While they must not show weakness that would lessen national sovereignty or “honor,” they must also find a way to appease the increasing domestic pressure to improve economic conditions.

In its quest to continue its role as a regional hegemon, Iran’s leadership faces many challenges, with none more important to its survival than those it faces domestically. With memories of the 1979 Revolution fading into the distance and its leadership keen to remain firmly in control of the nation, the Ayatollah and Iran’s assortment of political players need to look for ways to address an increasingly failing economy, an unfriendly global environment, and stifling segments of remaining sanctions, as these factors all push to destabilize the country into internal strife. It is not an impossible task, however, and Iran can well learn from the successes and failures of other nations who have faced, or are facing, similar pressures.

The learning of WHICH lessons, however, is a matter of the perspective one takes and is of major importance when looking at Iran. Looking through the lens of the Ayatollah, the lessons learned would likely be drawn from nations where the control of the country remained firmly in the hand of a single dictatorial type leader, whereby success was defined in the ability to retain power and dominance. Conversely, if one determines success by what is best for the state as a whole and its movement toward a more open and free society with greater global acceptance and connectivity, then the resultant path is radically different. This then is the real challenge facing millennial Iran and its future: will it be within a theocratic framework of managed politics guided by Islamist ideology or will it move to replace such staunchly traditionalist thinking and move away from its current theocracy, becoming a much more progressive and engaged member of the global community? This could very well be the key crucial question facing the entire Middle East for the next generation.