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Interview: The Political Culture Of Iranian Youth

Kaveh Basmenji (RFE/RL) RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari recently sat down with Kaveh Basmenji to discuss his book, "Tehran Blues," and prospects for Iranian youth.

RFE/RL: What do you think is the most important thing to know about Iran's youth today?

Basmenji: As far back as we look in Iranian history, there have always been dogmas and ideals and utopias that have formed the aspirations of all generations -- and particularly the younger generations. The characteristic of this generation -- which has come to the forefront and experienced the whole reform movement, [as well as] the so-called Tehran spring and its death, its end -- is that they aspire to no dogma and to no predetermined goal -- be it Marxism, Leninism, Islamic fanaticism, a return to self, or any sort of imported sociological dogmas or theories from the West.

RFE/RL: You write that that you have spent the last 25 years of your life dealing with Iranian youth. You also have two teenage boys yourself. How have the attitudes of young people -- their aspirations, their ideals and demands -- changed in the past 25 years? And what has prompted today's youth to turn away from past ideals and the values imposed by the Islamic establishment?

Basmenji: For one thing, I think the most striking factor is that 27 years or so ago, for the first time in Iranian history, a ruling system took over whose agenda was to transform the personality and the way of thinking of every individual in society. And to that end, it began relentless, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week propaganda and indoctrination. As a result of all this state propaganda, what we see at the end of the day is that young people are getting away from the notion of a state religion -- farther away with every day that passes.

So, in my opinion, although the Iranian people are still religious people in a very sort of spiritual and individual sense, they have moved miles away from the notion that religion could shake the political system and offer solutions to the everyday problems of your life.

RFE/RL: Today most young people despise violence. They value human life and its pleasures, and they want change -- but not at any cost. During [former President] Mohammad Khatami's eight-year tenure, some achievements were made in that direction, and people enjoyed some freedoms. Some have expressed concern that -- now that a hard-liner, the ultraconservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- is the president, things can change and some of those achievements might be reversed. What is your view?

Basmenji: Personally, I think it's the contrary. Because I don't see that Khatami and his tenure changed the attitude or the outlook of the younger generation toward life and society. It was the other way around; it was because of the pressure of the upcoming generations that Khatami came to power in the first place. He was a result of this phenomenal social cause, and not the other way around. So if you look at this social phenomenon as it was engendered by the young generation's demands that Khatami and the whole reform movement started -- so to speak -- we can see that there should be no turning back -- although there could be temporary drawbacks or halting points or turning points, whatever. But this third force, this younger generation, is coming; and any government -- any ruling system -- has to deal with it, with the younger generation that is in touch with the outside world and cannot be confined within dogma, within political, religious, [or] ideological indoctrination.

RFE/RL: Some compare this third force -- the Iranian youth -- to a dormant volcano. You have used another metaphor: Referring to a poem by Molana, or Rumi, you write that the Iranian youth is like an elephant in the dark. Could you explain?

Basmenji: I think both metaphors work. First of all, because as observers we tend to look at the developments in Iran -- particularly because Iran has captured the attention of the world during the reform movement of the past eight years. But mostly these observations have been one-dimensional and one-sided, depending on which angle we have been viewing Iranian society from -- and the youth in particular. Whereas obviously the youth movement's -- the younger generation's -- demands and their way of life is a multidimensional thing. It's been affected by myriad factors during long, long years. So that's why I call it the elephant in the dark. Depending on who you are and which angle you're looking [from], you see a certain aspect of this multidimensional animal.

I also called it a "dormant volcano" because there is an immense force -- because it is a very, very young population, and it's a very energetic population, and it's in contact with the outside world. It cannot be shut down. It knows the Internet; it's in touch with the world via satellite. There are more than 700,000 blogs in Iran alone, and Persian is the third [most-popular] language, after English and Chinese, being used on the Internet. So with this thriving generation, with this crashing wave, it's obvious that there is potential for explosion -- but that doesn't necessarily mean that there will be an explosion, an eruption.

The Structure Of Iran's Government

The Structure Of Iran's Government

INSIDE THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC: Iran is a theocratic Islamic republic governed under a 1979 constitution that was revised in 1989, when presidential powers were expanded and the prime minister's post was abolished.
Appointed -- not elected -- offices and bodies hold the real power in the government. The supreme leader, who serves as a chief of state would, is appointed for life by an Islamic religious advisory board that is called the Assembly of Experts. The supreme leader oversees the military as well as the judiciary and appoints members of the Guardians Council and the Expediency Council.
The Guardians Council -- some of whose members are appointed by the judiciary and approved by the parliament -- works closely with the government and must approve political candidates and legislation passed by the parliament. The Expediency Council is responsible for resolving legislative disputes that may arise between parliament and the Guardians Council over legislation.
The president, who is popularly elected for a four-year term, serves as the head of government. The legislative branch is made up of a 290-seat body called the Majlis, whose members are elected by popular vote for four-year terms...(more)


RFE/RL's coverage of Iran.