Young Iranians warn pressure could strengthen hard-liners

At World Economic Forum, Iran's new generation says people would support the gov't against a US strike, but want to open dialogue with West.

khatami world conference (photo credit: AP)
khatami world conference
(photo credit: AP)
Shahryar Eivazzadeh runs a small software startup in Teheran, spends his spare time blogging and feels little affection for Iran's current regime. But when tensions with the US are mentioned, he comes to his country's defense. The West has a wrong image of Iran, he says. "It's a very black-and-white, a very simplistic view," the 31-year-old said Saturday. He and other young Iranians warned at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland that the growing US-Iranian standoff and fears of US military strikes could strengthen the hard-liners who now control their government. Almost all made clear their discomfort with hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and said average Iranians crave more openness with the West. But they also stressed the strong role that national pride, and desire for Western respect, play in Iran. For that reason, Western pressure won't create impetus for change as the US administration may hope, but instead could coalesce support around continued hardline policies, they warned. "Even the prospect of an attack on Iran can unite the most radical reformists" with the hardline government, said Mohammedreza Jalaeipour, an Iranian student at Oxford University in Britain. The US has accused the Islamic regime of seeking a nuclear bomb, and the tense standoff over the nuclear program led the UN Security Council to impose targeted sanctions last year. Iran says its program is for energy only. US-Iranian tensions also are growing over Iraq and Lebanon, with US President George W. Bush authorizing stepped-up measures in Iraq against any Iranian activities that might fuel violence there. Many Iranians fear the US will strike their country at some point, although the Bush administration has said it is sticking to diplomacy for now. But if military strikes did occur, almost all Iranians would rally to support the government, said Bahare Arvin, a doctoral student and sociologist at Teheran University. "They like their country," she said simply. The rising tensions also have been fueled by Ahmadinejad's harsh rhetoric, especially his questioning of the Holocaust and attacks on Israel's right to exist. But Vali Nasr, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States, said most Iranians do not hold such views. Ahmadinejad won the presidency because of a populist backlash against domestic economic woes, not support for his hardline politics, he said. "Now, we see the Iranian political system recalibrating and readjusting," said Nasr, noting that Ahmadinejad supporters fared poorly in recent local elections. Even some conservatives have recently criticized the president. Many of those here said they felt that the key issue was for the United States and Iran to talk directly - something they have rarely done since breaking diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the US hostage crisis. The US and Iran made overtures during the years when reformist former President Mohammad Khatami was in power in the late 1990s, but they came to nothing. Jalaeipour expressed the frustration many Iranians now feel, telling one US official here that the United States "helped create Ahmadinejad, by not honoring Khatami." Khatami, now a frequent Western speaker, lamented the big "wall" between the US and Iran during separate talks at the Davos session. But he also pointed to the issue of pride, saying his country can only agree to "just, equal talks" without preconditions. The US wants Iran to suspend uranium enrichment before any talks. The nuclear issue is inextricably tied up with national pride, many speakers here said - a symbol of the country's rising scientific and technological know-how. And that is important in Iran today, where many want their country to take a place as a regional economic and cultural powerhouse. The United States and many Arab neighbors, pointing to the Iranian government's support for Hizbullah and other extremist groups, worry about that rising power. None of the young people here denied that such support exists, and they were careful to avoid direct criticism of government policies. But they stressed that their country is more complex than the West believes, more diverse politically and more democratic. A whopping 65 percent of the country's people are under age 25 and thus born after the Islamic revolution, noted Mohammad Hossein Adeli, a former Khatami adviser and ambassador who now heads a think tank. "You're facing a new generation that would like to engage with the world," he said.