In a country where over seventy percent of its population is under the age of thirty, the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran is undoubtedly in the hands of its youth. Since the establishment of Iran's first university in 1934, students have been the strongest advocates of political and social change. Yet as the international community continues to focus its attention on Tehran's nuclear activities and its hostile stance toward Israel, the efforts of the Iranian student movement are widely ignored. Blinded by the rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalism, the international community tends to overlook Iran's ongoing reform movement.
Despite the Islamic regime's incessant attempts to silence the student movement, their struggle continues to this day. As political repression and human rights violations expand under an increasingly oppressive regime, political opposition continues to grow. Press censorship, government corruption, university crackdowns, and social intrusions into people's lives contribute to the general dissatisfaction.
As in the years preceding the Islamic Revolution, the student movement today is paralleled with a women's rights, human rights, and labor movement. The dynamics of the current student movement, however, are by no means comparable to those of the Shah's era. The student movement today is more complex. There is a faction now that supports the regime while such a faction never existed under the Shah. Nevertheless, demand for democratic change remains widespread.
Until recently, U.S. policy toward Iran had been giving the radical elements more legitimacy. Incessant talk of 'regime change' allowed the Iranian government to suspect and detain not only Iranian Americans, but also leaders and elements within the student movement itself. Students who promoted democracy and human rights in Iran were subsequently accused of working for the U.S. It should be noted that Senator John Kerry's recent statement declaring that the U.S. no longer sought regime change in Iran was followed shortly thereafter by the release of journalist Roxana Saberi.
Despite increasing hostilities, the U.S. and Iran should focus on common interests and proceed with engagement. It remains imperative for the U.S. to consider the student movement as it establishes its policies toward Iran. Although the Obama Administration should not publicly state its support for the Iranian student movement, it should ensure that its policies do not undermine it. Sanctions should not interfere with the movement by any means. A careful approach would enable the U.S. to reconcile its strategic interests with its desire to see democracy flourish in Iran.
A general support for human rights in future negotiations would give the student movement the international help it seeks. International pressure on human rights violations in Iran would encourage the movement and ultimately compel the regime to ease political repression. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders are valuable assets that should not be overlooked.
An open and direct dialogue between the U.S. and Iran is necessary to alleviate tensions concerning both Iran's domestic politics (which ultimately affect its foreign policy) and in terms of regional security. The Obama administration needs to prove that it is not after regime change by offering direct talks, economic incentives, and respecting Iran's rights to peaceful uranium enrichment. The Iranian government would then be less inclined to keep its political system shut, as fears of U.S. plots to overthrow the regime diminish. As the political system opens up, the student movement will gain the momentum it needs to drive the reform movement, alongside the labor and women's rights activists. In this manner, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran would give the Iranian student movement an opportunity to achieve basic reforms, and would help the U.S. to stabilize the Middle East.