Meetings over Iran's nuclear program, which are resuming in Switzerland Monday, have reignited a small spark of hope for young Iranians I talked to.
While the world churns itself into a frenzy over the prospect of Iran's development of nuclear weapons, life goes on for the young people of Tehran. Six years after the Green Movement protests that engulfed the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2009, memories of the government's swift and ruthless response still linger. When it was all over, 36 people (according to government estimates) were dead, hundreds were imprisoned and tortured, and the thick residue of tear gas clouded any hope the young revolutionaries had for change.
Parastoo, whose name has been changed, is 23—a pretty, big-eyed girl. She speaks softly over the app Viber, but the fitful Iranian internet cuts her off from time to time. "I was 18 during the protests, and I had to pass a big exam to go to university," she says. "I remember at the library we were studying, lots of students were there and protesting. I liked those days so much. You could see hope in everyone's eyes... There was so much dancing in the street and people were so hopeful and happy, and then everything changed suddenly."
Still, talks regarding Iran's nuclear program, which are resuming in Switzerland Monday, reignited a small spark of that hope for many young Iranians. Most long for the harsh US-led sanctions imposed on their country to be lifted, so they can enjoy economic opportunities that have eluded them. But renewed dialogue between Iran and the US has introduced a new element to Persian youth's fraught relationship with their government. Some even see it as an indication that their voices are starting to be heard again, even though their shouts have been quieted to whispers.
The letter Republican senators recently wrote to Iran's leaders, which warned that any deal regarding the Islamic Republic's efforts to build up a nuclear program would only last as long as Obama was in office, almost ruined everything. Although the White House quickly moved to condemn the letter, Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei countered with a blistering speech on Thursday, describing it as "a sign of the decay of political ethics in the American system." And in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress on March 3, he made clear his opinions on a possible nuclear deal, saying it "would all but guarantee" that Iran succeeds in building a nuclear weapon. Iran has always maintained it has no desire to do so, and cables leaked in February seem to indicate that Israeli spy agency Mossad has been verifying that claim to Netanyahu for years. But still, the chorus of condemnation regarding the nuclear talks is difficult to ignore.
"You can't have a discussion about Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability without talking about the nature of the Iranian regime and its elected officials," says David Ibsen, executive director of United Against a Nuclear Iran, a conservative US organization with a name that's pretty self-explanatory. "If you look at... how they treat their own population, you're going to see some concerning things that certainly impact young people living in the country... I don't think anyone believes all Iranians think 'Death to America' is a great slogan. But unfortunately, when it comes to nuclear policy or state support of terrorism by the regime and individuals who are in power, their brutality is what you have to observe when you decide whether Iran is to be trusted."
Then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's violent reaction to the 2009 Green Movement protests appeared to have put an end to any revolutionary aspirations on the part of Persian youth. But some young Iranians see the nuclear talks as an opportunity for better relations with the West, with which they share certain values—values that helped drive the Green Movement, and that conservative elements in the regime have historically had zero tolerance for.
Persian youth's attachment to Western culture has been much discussed by the American media over the years. Many Iranians feel their underground life of house parties and hanging out at cafes has become the real face of young Iran, and resent the perception that their country is all angry Ayatollahs and women in burkas. But even under relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani's much less stifling regime, young people are sometimes reminded of the restrictions imposed upon them by their government.
Parastoo discovered this the hard way when she was recently arrested for an expression of free speech we can't identify for fear of inviting more retribution on her. "It was really scary when they came to my house," she says quietly. "I wasn't expecting such a thing at all. My friend and I were drinking coffee and talking, and it was 10 PM at night. Suddenly, someone knocked on the door and said, 'Hi, I'm your neighbor. I want to talk to you about something. Could you open the door?' When I opened the door, all of them came in with a camera and they were recording everything and had guns. It was terrifying... They were asking me if I knew why they were there, and I said, 'No, I have no idea,' but I knew.
"Tehran is a nice place," she continues. "We have this young generation who loves to be dancing, partying, things like that. But they showed me that we also have that kind of generation; we have the opposite kind, too. I forgot about that part. I was so involved with my own life and people like me that I forgot so many people are against us."
As a result of the restrictions they still face, Persian youth are adopting a new approach to achieving more social freedoms—a sort of quiet yet assertive brand of civil disobedience that seems to be taking conservatives in the government by surprise. This was apparent when a little-known Persian musician, Morteza Pashaei, died of cancer last November. Through social media, word began to spread of his death, and the fans trickling into the streets to mourn him soon became a flood. Tehran likely hadn't seen such crowds since the Green Movement, and at some point, someone decided to start singing one of Pashaei's songs. The mob of young people soon followed suit, and the streets of Tehran echoed with music. This may not seem particularly controversial to Westerners, but singing in public is illegal (at least for women) in Iran—yet the government did nothing.
Bahman, 27, whose name has also been changed, says he wasn't there, but he followed the whole thing on Facebook and Twitter. "That singer was not really popular," he says. "He was not a huge celebrity. When he was fighting cancer, he became famous little by little. People started talking about him on social networks. When he died, even if many people didn't really know who he was, they just joined in. I call it a social movement, because I think Iranians, especially the younger generation, they look forward to finding an opportunity to show themselves and to say that we are here; you cannot really suffocate us as a nation. It was kind of an opportunity for them to demonstrate their existence."
Bahman has a unique experience of Iran, by virtue of the fact that he's gay, and he says he's even seen some shift in attitudes regarding homosexuality. "Being gay is quite a challenge for everyone over here," he explains. "It is so difficult because you cannot really talk about it in the society, but I think that there has been some effort in our society to change the mindset of the people. Social media has... played a big role in that. There are some Persian-speaking satellite channels as well, so they have TV shows talking about such issues and people normally watch them. We have a very famous Persian singer, Googoosh...She released this song, 'Behesht,' for a lesbian couple. That song was like a bomb in our society... the internet has somewhat put Iran back in the hands of the people."
Hoomam Majd, an Iranian journalist and author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, says all this is an indication of the way efforts to transform the status quo in Iran have evolved. "People, generally speaking, don't want revolution and uncertainty; but they do want change," Majd explains. "This is why in elections they vote for candidates like Rouhani who promise them change, a better life... in the early days of the revolution, people were afraid, but the revolution has matured to some degree, and will continue to."
And as the atmosphere changes, some Persian youth want to see the long and bitter enmity between their country and the US evolve as well. Others fear the nuclear talks, and that pushback from Washington—such as the senators' letter—will lead to an even harsher crackdown by the American government, despite President Obama's apparent wish to come to an understanding with Iran.
"I don't know why the government is insisting on this issue," Bahman says. "Some of us are really fed up with it because it might be really bad for us... This is something totally strategic for them. I think they gain a kind of power or strength if they're successful. Besides, [Rouhani] should be focusing on making our lives less difficult in terms of social restrictions."
But other young Iranians look at a nuclear deal as the beginning of a new relationship with the rest of the world, and perhaps one day between the Iranian government and its people. "I am hopeful to see there is a movement toward peace between Iran and the West," writes Parihan, 27, in an email. "It's not because I think the United States is right, but because there is no win-win way out of this dead end other than nuclear talks. I do think that some sort of consensus will be reached. I am hopeful that it will be to the benefit of my country both politically and economically. But I think the most important change will be the hope people would have for a brighter future."
Parastoo is hopeful as well. She describes the throngs that gathered after Pashaei's death with wonder in her voice. "The crowd was so big," she says. "I haven't seen such a thing in years. It must have been really scary for the regime...Maybe that was a way for us to remember things. I'm not sure. It's so complicated. But I was seeing this, and imagining what would happen if someone more popular dies. I was thinking, what could happen to Tehran? All the people will come to the streets."
Additional reporting by Omid Memarian
Sulome Anderson is a journalist based between Beirut and New York City. Follow her on Twitter.