Iran's Youth Seen Disinterested in Rhetoric

The youth of Iran are more interested in commercialism, jobs and money than revolutionary rhetoric. Peter David, foreign editor of The Economist, who wrote the magazine's special report on Iran, spoke with Renee Montagne.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Baghdad yesterday, top American and Iranian diplomats held talks in what Ambassador Ryan Crocker described to reporters as a, quote, "full and frank discussion on security in Iraq." The party staged a first round of meetings last May.

To find out more about Iran, we called Peter David who's foreign editor of The Economist and was in Iran just before those first talks. He's written a special report on that country in this week's issue. Good morning.

Mr. PETER DAVID (Foreign Editor, The Economist): Good morning. Pleased to be with you.

MONTAGNE: What do you see coming out of these high-level contacts, which have not existed for several decades?

Mr. DAVID: Well, I think in the long run, this is going to be very good news. I understand that as the results of yesterday's meeting, a committee will be set out for lower-level contacts between America and Iran to deal with the situation in Iraq, which means that these meetings are going to become less of a sort of trading of insults and accusations and more of a sort of working group. But in the long run, I think the mere fact that America and Iran are talking to one another is the breaking of a taboo.

MONTAGNE: Now you visited, as I've just said, Iran in May. In your case, it was for the first time. What were your impressions?

Mr. DAVID: You know, in all my informal contacts with what you might call ordinary Iranians, the man in the street felt it was just natural for Iran to want to talk to the world's superpower. But what I did find was that in talking to people in the regime, and especially when I went to the Friday prayers in Iran, which is a big sort of choreographed stage-managed political event, there was extreme sensitivity about these talks.

The people who I think went to the Friday prayers are a particular group. They are people whose livelihood depends directly in some way on the state and the institutions of the revolution. And they are traditional people. But a lot of the Iranian public is very young. It's an urbanized, young population, which has practical concerns, which is quite consumerist. They're much like young people everywhere else in the world.

MONTAGNE: I mean, there is a distinction between these young people, sort of lipstick jihadists…

Mr. DAVID: Yes exactly.

MONTAGNE: …people who are trying to get into the modern world and the regime itself - there has been a crackdown on both political dissent and even dress in Iran in this last couple of months. What did you see and hear of that when you were there?

Mr. DAVID: Well, I spoke to a lot of people who were still willing to be quite outspoken in their criticisms of the regime. I mean, people like opposition politicians, members of parliament who are not in the ruling group, newspaper editors, intellectuals, and all of them said that the atmosphere had really hardened and darkened in the last few months.

And I think this is all connected to the feeling the regime has that the world is beginning to tighten an economic noose around Iran as a result of the sanctions, which have been imposed by the United Nations in an attempt to make the Iranians stop their nuclear program.

MONTAGNE: So finally, what, then? You have these tugs in different directions - will young people be brought back or kept within revolutionary Iran?

Mr. DAVID: Well, you know, it's only a very brave man who prophesizes about Iran. My bottom line, though, is that if Iran were to left to its own devices, the regime would change from within. The paradox is that the more pressure that the outside world puts on Iran to change, the easier it is for the regime to dig in because the regime can always say, look, the Western world has interfered with our internal affairs in the past and we don't like it, and we should unite in the face of adversity. Because, at the end of the day, Iranian people, like everyone else, are proud nationalists. And if there is too much pressure from outside put on the country, then the danger is that people will band around their leaders, however much they dislike them.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. DAVID: It's my pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Peter David is foreign editor of the Economist.

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