This week’s outcry in Iran against the imperial forces of American toy manufacturers would be humorous, were it not indicative of a far more pervasive and rampant paranoia within the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, the recent outbursts from various public officials against toys and satellite television offer the West only a tiny glimpse into the ever-panicky existence of the Iranian mullahcracy. Rather than representing a mere moment of comic relief, these outbursts are in fact consistent with a longstanding policy in Iran of keeping Western influences out of the country.
Gharbzadagi — often referred to as “Westoxication” or “Occidentosis” — is the alleged imposition of Western culture and entertainment in Iranian society. After centuries of occupation and empire, the fear of foreign cultural influence over Iran became a primary concern throughout the country; especially among the reigning mullahs of the revolutionary movement. The philosophy was first coined by the Iranian writer and political theorist Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, whose book Occidentosis: A Plague from the West played a prominent role in defining the revolutionary ideology of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In a move that would become common practice for the reigning clerical class of the country, Khomeini and his Supreme Cultural Revolution Council quickly turned their energies on the young and the restless of Iran following the 1979 overthrow of the Shah. Campuses were shut down and war was declared upon universities all across the country. The council — founded and led by current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — worked diligently for several years to rewrite history books, purge secular intellectuals, and remove the information that didn’t meet Islamic muster. The spiritual figureheads understood that these places posed the most immediate challenge to their authority, thus requiring a complete cleansing of the more cosmopolitan university culture in Iran.
These measures resulted in violence and bloodshed on almost every Iranian college campus. The nation had been freed from the authoritarian grip of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and her liberators intended to free it from every other trace of Western society. Khomeini understood this dual-front war, famously declaring in 1980 that Iran’s revolutionaries “are not afraid of economic sanctions or military intervention. What we are afraid of is Western universities and the training of our youth in the interests of West or East.” Pushing the imperialists out in the flesh would not suffice — removing them in thought and theory was equally imperative. (Khomeini’s own Western influences, namely Plato, were incidental at the time.)
The 1980s were a bad time to be young in Iran, and the nation has yet to fully recoup from the subsequent brain drain that followed the decade’s long purges of campus intellectualism. This bizarre fear of the young carries on to this day; manifesting itself in various forms, from the banning of rap music to targeted propaganda railing against satellite television and subversive behavior. The mullahs may have good reason for concern.
The movement that took hold of Iran in the late 1970s was energized by an increasingly urban population, one where the words and comforting conservatism of the mullahs provided solace to a population startled by hyper-modernity. In a rapidly changing land, the familiar words from the mosque and the neighborhood prayer groups (known as hay’ats) helped grow the grassroots of the coming revolutionary wave. But the current crop of Iranian youths is different, and they don’t share the same anti-Western vigor as their parents once did. The U.S. Census Bureau has tracked these youngsters, whom today comprise the largest population block in Iran. Couple this with an 11% unemployment rate (according to the Iranian government) and a median age of 26, and the picture you begin to get is a country full of frustrated young men. The Iranian Principalists in charge of the regime understand the volatile time bomb they sit upon, making much of their paranoia well warranted. It’s an obvious example of the sad state of affairs in Iran, wherein the ruling class must fight and fear the energy and ingenuity of its young, rather than tapping into those citizens in order to strengthen their nation.
However, one nation’s failure might represent a glimmer of hope for another. A recent poll conducted by World Public Opinion found that Iranians — although still critical of American behavior — desire stronger relations, more trade, and more exchanging of ideas with their Western rivals. Rather than embracing the anti-Western rhetoric and sloganeering of their leaders, this generation of Iranians sees a future with its American counterparts. Iran’s frustrated youth offers the United States a soft-power leverage that bombs and bullets alone cannot supply. On the contrary, attacking this regime now could instead alienate the deciding generation for post-revolutionary Iran. It will be these young men (and women) who give Ayatollah Khomeini his final grade. It’s these Iranians — who in a decade’s time will be approaching their 40s and raising children of their own — whose political perceptions will be molded and formed by the way in which America engages their country.
The Supreme Leader told us himself: the mullahs fear nothing more than their very own young. Bombs and invasions have a way of emboldening impetuous youth. Attacks on Iran’s national identity and sovereignty — whether they be missiles or the financing of separatist groups — only hurts the West’s standing there. Instead, the U.S. should try exerting the most powerful weapon of influence it has there. Offer Iran expedited membership in the WTO, and perhaps the promise of other bilateral trade arrangements similar to the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) shared between Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and the United States. Initiate policies that will assuage the concerns of the ruling class in the short term, while better enabling their undoing in the long term.
All Americans should be in agreement that a nuclear-armed Iran is an unacceptable one. The republic’s financing of terrorism and insurgency in Iraq — and indeed throughout the entire region — is equally unacceptable, and must be halted. The question for American policymakers then becomes: What achieves this end the fastest? If Iran refuses to engage in such negotiations, then they create a force of hand for the West. But if Iran is open to capitulation and carrots, the United States should move to embrace those gestures.