Editor’s Note: Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. His books include The Second World (2008) and How to Run the World (2011). The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Over the years I’ve witnessed many societies racing to catch up after decades lost to corruption or conflict, from post-Soviet Moscow to post-war Yugoslavia. In those places the symbol of success was a stolen German car. Today there is an entire global youth bulge from Lagos to Beirut to Jakarta trying to overcome the many obstacles that have held them back—and they all seem to have subconsciously arrived at the same formula for survival in an age of self-reliance: Caffeine, cash and connectivity.
Particularly since the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) signed with Western powers, Iran’s suppressed youth have entered a hyper-kinetic overdrive.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the country’s mega-city capital, Tehran. Ask a Tehran entrepreneur how he does business without access to the SWIFT banking network, the financial equivalent of the Internet. Or how Iranians keep up their multiple passports to travel the world despite growing restrictions on their buying into dual citizenship programs. Or how the latest gadgets wind up in the sprouting mega-malls around the city despite what U.S. President Barack Obama called the “toughest and most comprehensive sanctions.” I always got the same answer, delivered with a shrug and a smile: “We just do it.”
In a way, Iran has been a just-do-it society for decades. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s theocratic leadership has taken masochistic pride in its self-imposed pursuit of self-sufficiency. After India and Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, one heard in both countries admiration for how Iran’s toughing out sanctions and building stronger indigenous industries would be their role model. Within Iran, of course, it is the government that has effectively sanctioned its own people – and the youth (two-thirds of the population is under 35) who have to work around the constraints. Spend a week in Tehran and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the post-sanctions opening has passed even though it hasn’t even really begun yet. You would have little doubt that when the time does actually come, Iran is indeed going to dominate the region – but with its brains and markets, not its nukes.