Against the backdrop of the first real political dialogue between Iran and the US since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, it is imperative that we explore a more comprehensive strategy of engagement with this isolated nation. Regardless of the outcome of the nuclear talks, there exists an opportunity to promote a more durable relationship that is rooted in citizen to citizen engagement, particularly with Iran's burgeoning youth population. This type of foundation building is proven to build trust, engender understanding and respect, and ultimately create the stability that is so desperately needed between our two countries.
The ongoing threat of al-Qaeda and the rise of ISIS have heightened the US's need for stable partners in the MENA region. While US-Iranian relations will no doubt continue to be contentious, there are overlapping interests to be found. Iran wields tremendous influence geopolitically and building on the dialogue already underway can have enormous benefits for the international community.
This discussion, however, must not only occur in Switzerland or in the halls of the United Nations. To be truly impactful, it must engage Iran's 76 million citizens who are under the age of 30. This group, which represents over 60 percent of Iran's population, has its government's attention. The world watched in awe as Iran's youth marched in the streets after the 2009 presidential election without any real support from Western countries. Over the years, it has pressed for and received social or political freedoms. Unlike the youth in some neighboring countries, Iranian youth has consistently remained pro-Western and has not, thus far, demonstrated a tendency towards radicalism. The time is now for the US engage this segment of Iranian society.
Isolation is simply not an effective foreign policy tool, particularly for vulnerable groups such as youth and women who are disproportionately affected. It breaks communications and affinities between countries, leaving citizens further estranged from the outside world. It also creates an especially dangerous vacuum as terrorist groups continue in their efforts to recruit vulnerable youth all over the globe. The more disconnected this population feels, the more vulnerable they become to fundamentalism.
Only through engagement and people-to-people exchanges can we improve understanding, build trust and ultimately create a foundation that can be leveraged at different levels. Misunderstandings fueled by politically biased sources have weakened the links that once held these two societies together and have reinforced the perceived lack of commonality between Iranians and Americans. The value of cultural diplomacy has been widely demonstrated and documented. By stripping away the more political and public layers of life, we must now support initiatives aimed at providing:
- Thought leadership on the pivotal role of engaging youth in Iran and the importance of measured and deliberate engagement to support the growth and integration of this group into the world community.
- Cultural and social programs that promote greater understanding between nations and support a positive narrative.
- Professional programs that promote measured engagement and create opportunities for youth and women in Iran.
As an Iranian American, it is disappointing how little attention is given or funds allocated to support Iranian civil society. Conversations on Iran center first and foremost on our national security interests understood within the strict confines of nuclear disarmament. This narrow and shortsighted view is especially concerning as we confront enormous challenges with the unprecedented spread of extremism in the region.
What if we opened ourselves to the possibility that our interests would be better served by engaging proactively, carefully and thoughtfully during peacetime? By doing so, we would be viewed as partners interested in mutual gains as opposed to dogmatic masters seeking to impose our will.
A more engaged, informed and connected Iranian youth is more likely to lead to a more stable Iran, a more stable region, and ultimately align with our national security interests.