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Iran Cannot Be Reformed from Within

Wrong again. Iran can and will be reformed from within. Demographics make that course inevitable. Some 70 percent of Iran’s 70 million citizens are under the age of 30, and young Iranians are more reform-minded than older groups. That was made clear in a survey conducted by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, whose initial findings were released in 2001.

The survey confirmed that young people resent existing political restrictions more than their elders, and that they are less religiously observant. Thirty-one percent of people aged 15 to 29 favored a “fundamental change in the state of affairs”—a euphemism for making the constitution more democratic.

Given continuing dissatisfaction with clerical rule, those figures have likely risen since the survey was taken in 2001. From Tehran’s well-heeled uptown to its poorer areas, the spread of material values and sexual freedom is palpable, as is a desire for smaller families.

Universities are increasingly dominated by women, and female university graduates already outnumber their male counterparts. Young people display little animus for the once hated United States. 

Iran’s reform-minded millions lack a common ideology and leadership. And it is likely that, by disqualifying reformist candidates, a conservative vetting body will decide June’s presidential election in advance. Yet, the Islamic Republic today is more responsive to the popular mood than it likes to admit.

In big cities such as Tehran, social freedoms and their attendant distortions cannot be stamped out, so the authorities do not really try. In the upcoming elections, all conservative candidates will pay lip service to the importance of individual, even political, freedoms. A new generation of Iranians will, despite Khatami’s failure, spur further reform.

The process would benefit from a critical dialogue with the United States, rather than the current, glowering standoff. As long as Iran fears America’s intentions, and the United States vilifies the Islamic Republic, Iran’s authoritarian leaders will have an excuse to suppress dissent and to label reformers as traitors. 

– By Christopher de Bellaigue, Foreign Policy, May/June 2005
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