Mission accomplished? After an unsuccessful eight year proxy war , money and commodities poured from the United States into the Middle East and, in the name of normality and freedom, all but the strongest young people are being remade in the image of the Western consumer.
Hard power is exerted by financial inducements, invasion and remote killing by drone aircraft. Soft power sounds quite benign, but as Joseph Nye points out in The Future of Power (2011), it can be wielded for good or ill: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all possessed a great deal of soft power.
He adds: “It is not necessarily better to twist minds than to twist arms”.
Recent ‘advances’ in Iran are being celebrated and underpinned by the FT’s Roula Khalaf (left), who was invited to speak in April’s economic summit for female executives aka ‘Global Female Leaders‘. She records that the boys and girls of the Islamic Republic watch western television and Iranian expatriate channels beamed from Los Angeles, Washington and London. “The youth are different from 10 years ago,” says Hamid-Reza Jalaipour, a professor of sociology at Tehran University, “Individualism is high . . . they do what they want”.
Soft power ‘achievements’ of satellite channels, social media and clothes designers noted:
- Instilling a sense of inferiority: “Iranians aren’t known in the world. We’re not a reference for progress. The US is. Europe is”.
- The rate of divorce has been steadily rising, up more than 5% in the past Iranian year that ended in March.
- One young man stopped praying and lost faith that the goals of the 1979 Islamic revolution could be achieved. “They were good for 1979 — slogans like oil for free, free housing, equality”.
- The hijab comes in all colours and patterns. Some don’t even bother tying it around the neck. The jackets that are supposed to conceal their bodies are tighter and the hems are rising up.
- They spend their lives on social media — Viber is the latest craze, and a forum for jokes about their leaders. According to the ministry of communications’ April figures, 20 million Iranians have smartphones.
- “In downtown Tehran” Ms Khalaf is told, “the kids, aged 16 to 25, call themselves Sholex. They are like a street gang. They come from poor families, and live on the streets, drinking, smoking (tobacco and hashish) and wasting time . . . an outcast society, separated from the rest, living in a world they made up themselves.
In short, exhibiting the downside of Western societies
Surely with some justice, Islamic leaders ‘regularly blame the west for corrupting [the under 40s]. Ms Khalaf continues: “In a recent statement, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and highest authority, hinted at his frustration. “They [the youth] are intellectually exposed to dangerous threats — the ways of corrupting them are many, there are communications media that can . . . spread a wrong thought or comment”. He continues: “Today the country is not involved in the military war but it is involved in political, economic and security wars — and, above all, the cultural wars.”
Nazanin is a 28-year-old graphic designer, who describes herself as an outcast. “When foreigners look at TV they don’t see the real Iran. We have the surface society and we have the underground society. We have our parties, we get drunk, nothing is legal. We live like in the west.” The police? “You can get around them, especially if you have money and you can pay bribes.”
Some common sense survives – no ‘Arab Spring’ pawns:
Ms Khalaf asked Afra (who works for a research company) and her friends how they envision Iran changing. Step-by-step reform, they say, not upheaval. One revolution for Iran is enough. “The Islamic revolution made us less developed and we’re afraid another one will take us even further backwards,” says Hamid, a 25-year-old finishing graduate studies in engineering. “Look at the Arab revolutions,” he continues, referring to Syria, Egypt, Libya”.
These illusions of normality, freedom and prosperity are confidence trick. The unmentioned features of the USA, a country which young Iranians and others have been led, by soft power, to admire as ‘an ideal state of freedom’, are military aggression, pollution, child abuse, violent pornography, youth unemployment, high cost of housing and energy and inequality.