What we get wrong about Iran

Iran's educated young population has been turning toward the West, Linda Mason says.

Story highlights

  • Linda Mason: Two-thirds of Iran's population is under the age of 35
  • A nuclear deal would be placing a bet on the young people of Iran, she says

Linda Mason is leader in residence at Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)"Welcome America," exclaimed the smiling Iranian official at passport control when I arrived at 2:30 a.m. in Shiraz, Iran. They weren't the first words I expected to hear in a country known for its "Death to America" slogans. But the greeting was only the first of many reminders on my recent trip that Americans' perceptions of Iran too often lag behind reality.

Last month, I traveled to Iran with a group of U.S. businesspeople who were interested in the country's culture and commerce. As part of the self-funded trip, we traveled to the major cities -- Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Qom -- and had broad access to business and religious leaders, government officials, entrepreneurs, academics, university students, artists and ordinary people.
    And the more time I spent with everyday Iranians, the more I saw how here in the United States our perceptions of Iran are still shaped by the shocking images of the 1979 siege of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and later the hateful rantings of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is despite the fact that, broadly speaking, Iran is a young, urban, educated and increasingly Western-oriented population yearning to be part of the international community.
    It isn't surprising if you look at the numbers: Two-thirds of Iran's population is under the age of 35 (the median age is 29). Education standards, meanwhile, are high, and the universities are strong, particularly in engineering and math. Also, some 60% of university students are women, as are 50% of the engineering students. And Iranians are curious about the rest of the world -- an estimated 55,000 Iranian students study abroad each year, with the United States being one of the top destinations.
    All of this is contributing to Iran becoming a truly technologically wired country. Cell phones are ubiquitous, and there are an estimated 40 million smartphones in Iran, mainly flowing in from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, despite the sanctions that have been imposed on the country. True, Facebook and Twitter are officially banned, yet there are millions of Facebook users in the country.
    This younger, more tech-savvy generation is also more pro-American than generations past, which makes it somewhat ironic that the country is still demonized by many in the United States. The country is ruled by an aging Islamic theocracy, the state casts a large shadow over the economy and the country still backs militant groups overseas. But we will be doing ourselves a disservice if we don't acknowledge the changes within Iran, and the opportunities that could result from constructive engagement with a people who genuinely seem to want better relations.
    During my trip, I asked Iranians I met why there seemed to be such a strong pro-American sentiment. In response, they noted our open society, our role as a beacon of freedom and civil society, our strong economy, and of course our movies and music. Indeed, everywhere we traveled we were treated with warmth and hospitality.
    One Friday afternoon, we headed to Laleh Park, a large park in central Tehran. Businesses and schools are closed on Fridays, the holy day, and many families head to the parks. And aside for the mandatory headscarves, looking around I felt like I could have been in New York's Central Park. Couples were walking around holding hands or nuzzling on park benches; families were picnicking or pushing children on swings in the playgrounds. Young people of both sexes were playing volleyball, ping pong and badminton together.
    At one point in the park, I became separated from our group, and I wandered around on my own chatting with some of the people I came across. At one point, I passed a family who cheerfully pointed and said, "The Americans went that way!" A young man came up to me and said, "You remind me of my mother, and I know she would be happy if I helped you to find your friends." As we went searching for my group, we chatted about his university and his favorite American movies ("22 Jump Street" and for his girlfriend "The Notebook").
    Such images of openness are in sharp contrast with those many Americans have of Iran as an oppressive, fundamentalist nation. Of course, as one academic explained, although religion is important to many Iranians, it is not a way of life for most people in this country of 80 million people. And university students, both men and women, would tell me, "This is no Saudi Arabia. Women can drive, work and own property."
    Indeed, I saw young people pushing boundaries everywhere -- young women wore their mandatory headscarves pushed far back on their heads with hair flowing on either side and many wear leggings with skirts above their knees, platform shoes and painted toenails.
    Clearly, then, there is space for diversity and a range of views in today's Iran, space that could grow with the social and economic reforms under President Hassan Rouhani.
    The question is how consistently the country's leaders will allow Iranians to tread this path that they seem determined to follow. After all, the Green Revolution of 2009 was brutally suppressed, and the experiences of Egypt and Syria have no doubt dampened any hopes that Iran could see its own popular uprising.
    More recently, the power struggle between hard-liners and the moderates within the government appears to be on display in the detention and 10-month imprisonment of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, whose trial started this week -- some analysts speculate that the hard-line judiciary is using the case to try to undermine the more moderate Rouhani.
    Despite these challenges, our time in Iran offered constant reminders of why it is wrong to conflate the actions of Iran's regime with the will of the country's people. And it also demonstrated why those in the U.S. Congress who are reflexively opposed to a nuclear deal should rethink their opposition, because sinking the deal will only embolden hard-liners and disillusion a population that seems upbeat about its prospects. Yes, caution is understandable. But moving forward with a deal, and lifting the sanctions, would send a powerful message to an educated young population that has been turning toward the West.
    Ultimately, a nuclear deal would be placing a bet on the young people who represent Iran's future. It's a bet I think we should be willing to take.