Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Generational Divide

by Ghazal Rahmanpanah
-Iran/USA-

In the summer of 2013, three decades after the end of the Iranian hostage crisis, the windows of the former United States embassy in the heart of downtown Tehran were washed once again and colorful murals were painted on the abandoned external walls. With the election of Dr. Hassan Rouhani to the Islamic Republic’s presidency, the people of Iran began envisioning a hopeful relationship between Iran and the U.S.A, believing promises of negotiations and economic relief to be imminent.

Multigenerational presence at Tehran marketplace. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Multigenerational presence at Tehran's Old Bazaar. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Yet over a year later, analysts and experts on both sides continue to debate how the endgame will play out. There is very little certainty whether the U.S. demands of dismantling uranium enrichment capacity will be met and whether the countless, crippling economic sanctions on Iran will be promptly removed.

Moreover, at the heart of these negotiations are many complex diplomatic challenges for the West given the Iranian nuclear program’s covert history and the government’s prohibition of media coverage of all things nuclear. However, what seems to be missing almost entirely from this ongoing analysis is the voice of the Iranian people – the voices of those the most impacted by the dialogue between the United States and its former friend and close ally within the Middle East.

Since the revolution in 1979, Iranian domestic and foreign policy have isolated the country from its former allies, with the nation’s nuclear program only exasperating the isolation. The program’s roots are grounded in the U.S.-backed regime of Iran’s last monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. In the late 1950s, Iran’s nuclear cooperation began when the nation became a signatory to the U.S. Atoms for Peace program under President Eisenhower.

For the next two decades, the Shah bankrolled dozens of nuclear power stations across the country with U.S. support and backing. Simultaneously, the country ratified the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968). Under the Atomic Energy Act of Iran, funding began to pour into the scientific and technical infrastructures necessary to carry out projects in industries such as agriculture that would use atomic energy to flourish. The Shah was determined to develop a full nuclear fuel cycle, building nearly two-dozen nuclear power plants by the mid 1970s.

Tehran mural. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Mural on former U.S. embassy wall in Tehran. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Then, in 1979, as the Iranian Revolution unfolded and U.S. ties severed, all nuclear projects froze. U.S. contracts to build new power plants were cancelled. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini shut down the country’s nuclear program until 1984, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, when the Ayatollah had a change of heart. With Saddam Hussein pursuing an Iraqi nuclear program, Ayatollah Khomeini secretly sought assistance from Germany to restart the halted program – the same year the U.S. Department of State added Iran to its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

For the next 30 years diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran officially remained non-existent even though the rhetoric and talking points continue to be heavy-handed. During this time, Iran’s official attitude towards The Great Satan - its policies and regional actions - are a matter of very public record.

In 2013, Hassan Rouhani, the former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, ran a campaign promising “Government of Prudence and Hope.” Assurances of enhanced mutual trust between Tehran and the international community and relief from “cruel” western sanctions were the foundation to Rouhani’s sweep of Iran’s seventh presidential elections with nearly 51 percent of the votes.

The election of Rouhani ushered in hope and optimism for many Iranians, specifically the country’s very young population. His ascension to the presidency highlighted a significant phenomenon impacting politics and life in contemporary Iran – the country’s widening generational gap.

According to the Mundi Index, over half of Iran’s nearly 81 million are under the age of 25. This figure signifies the existence of two critical generations within the country: the generation that witnessed and barely survived the revolution and subsequent years of war and the generation that did not.

Tehran mural. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Mural on former U.S. embassy wall in Tehran. Photograph courtesy of the author.

For the former, the years following the overthrow of the Shah on February 11, 1979 were marred by mass executions of political opponents and former government officials as the new regime swiftly moved to consolidate power. According to historian Ervand Abrahamian, from 1981 to 1985 during the regime’s “revolutionary crisis mode,” it is believed over 8,000 opponents were executed – a number far exceeding the number killed by the Shah in an attempt to stop the revolution. Almost immediately following the revolution, Iran entered a devastating eight-year war with neighboring Iraq. While dissidents and political opponents faced executions at home, the young were being sent to the front lines as martyrs. For the survivors of this generation the scars of war are very real. Samira*, a family friend from the Northeastern city of Mashhad, tells me “Until 1979, political debate was in our blood … and then the killings began. So who is left for debate?”

The years of war created a lasting impression on this generation – a generation filled with both pride and fear when it comes to national identity. Fatemeh* was only 15 when the country broke out into revolution. Well traveled and sharp-tongued, even by Iranian female standards, she currently works as an office manager for a prominent law firm in Tehran. Sitting in an ice cream shop, I ask her thoughts on the now infamous “Happy in Tehran” dancers. “They were bi-hijab (without hijab) while singing in the streets,” she says frankly. “They broke the law, so what did they expect?”

For this generation, the issue of atomic energy is closely tied to their national identity as an Iranian. For individuals such as Fatemeh and Samira, the roots of the nuclear program are deeply grounded in their rights as a citizen of the world. Ali, a middle-aged man with a young family working in Tehran’s bazaar, is never short on criticisms when it comes to Iranian politics. Pushing him on his thoughts regarding the nuclear energy program, he bolsters proudly “it is the right of our people. China has it [a nuclear program], the U.S. has one, Israel has theirs,” he replies. “So we have a right to have one too.”

Yet, when the same questions are brought up to Iran’s budding young population, the sentiment is starkly different. Maryam*, a highly educated young mother of one, gave up her full time job as a travel agent to stay at home with her young son. Although her engineer husband has no objections to her working, she is frustrated with the lack of jobs in her field of accounting. She recalls the days when the regime spoke proudly of the nuclear program and how it would be a source of alternative energy for the country. “And then nothing came of it,” she says angrily. “We waited for the supposed energy to manifest and it didn’t. Instead, things just got worse and the economic pressures have poisoned our society.”

For this young and seemingly unfulfilled generation, the regime they never chose has failed to keep its promises of prosperity. The nuclear program has yet to create the alternative energy it was supposedly set out to do and the country continues to fall further into isolation. It remains to be seen what, if anything, will come from the Geneva talks and whether the outcries of the younger generation will start to take a toll on the political actions of the country’s old guard. I ask Maryam if she could send one message to the United States, what would it be. She ponders for a minute and replies, “I would tell them that the opinion of our government is not the opinion of our people. Don’t punish us for the choices of our fathers.”

*Name is changed for the safety of the individual.

ghazal rahmanpanahAbout the author: Ghazal Rahmanpanah is an Iranian-American born in Tehran and raised in Maryland and Washington, DC who recently received her MA in International Policy Studies and MBA in International Economics at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She is currently working as a media analyst for a global strategic communications firm. Ghazal is passionate about gender equality and the role it plays in disarmament initiatives.

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