I just learned through Facebook that my 21-year-old cousin is now a fan of Woody Allen. If almost any other of my "Facebook Friends" had updated their profile showing they were a new fan of Woody Allen, I probably wouldn't have given it much thought.
However, my cousin is a young Iranian woman living in Tehran. The idea of her cultural taste, let alone her access, extending to Woody Allen movies seemed peculiar.
It felt curious to me because I live in America, and much of the news we receive as Americans about Iranians since the 1979 Islamic Revolution is that Iranians have had to endure a very repressive lifestyle. From what I gather from my relatives who experienced the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, that indeed was the case. A country, prerevolution, used to many of the same liberties and economic advantages of Western nations, was suddenly thrust into a harsh mandate of strict fundamentalist Islamic codes.
That was then. Some 30 years later, Iran's government is still ruled by conservative mullahs. But unlike the early years after the revolution, the people of today's Iran indulge in an ample amount of Western pop culture. Eighty percent of Iran's population today is under the age of 30. That statistic, combined with interconnective technology such as the Internet, has led to Iranians waging their own cultural revolution.
Iranians have enthusiastically embraced technology and love gadgets. The Tehran cell phone market has almost three times the average market demand of Western cities such as Oslo and Barcelona. Iranians' zeal for the latest model iPhone or BlackBerry could have less to do with them being technophiles and more to do with the access such technology affords to pop culture, for which they have a voracious appetite.
I used to have brief, polite phone conversations with my Iranian cousins on occasion, but since all of us joined Facebook we have come to know each other much more personally. Our fairly formal phone manners have given way to frequent, comfortable exchanges and witty banter on the social networking Web site. I actually was amazed by how sarcastic my cousins can be on Facebook.
I was born in Iran. During my very early years, my family moved between Iran and the United States to be with my father, who was a professor who taught at several American universities. But we fled Iran permanently in 1980. I haven't been back since, as it's considered unwise for men of Iranian descent to travel back home — they can be drafted into the army or just be detained indefinitely. So except for meeting my relatives when they travel outside Iran, Facebook is my window into their world. And that window is opening wider by the day.
While the Iranian government disseminates images of government-staged protests in which hard-liners chant, "Death to America," the extensive market for American pop culture in Iran belies such propaganda. When the actor Sean Penn visited Iran in 2005 on a journalistic assignment, he wrote he was surprised to find how many people there complimented him on his films. Cut to present day and we see even more cultural progress has been made in the years since Penn's visit.
From what I have learned from my relatives living in Iran via Facebook (an amazing thing in and of itself), bootleg DVDs of Sean Penn's latest movie, Milk, are a hot commodity, the new U2 album is being downloaded en masse, and apparently a Woody Allen movie viewing club in Tehran has recently gained a member.
Even President Barack Obama's recent overture to Iran yielded polar reactions. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave Obama's Iranian New Year's message two big thumbs down. But among the Iranian people, the video was rabidly viral and significantly augmented Obama's fan base.
In contemplating the juxtaposition of Iran's pro-Western populace versus its hard-line government, it occurred to me that the most effective method of effecting regime change in Iran probably isn't via military strike (as was much discussed during our previous trigger-happy administration) but through a more concerted and coordinated "soft war."
This soft war campaign would simply be a greater infiltration of the Western culture that many Iranians already fervently consume. Getting American products and culture to the Iranian people shouldn't just be happenstance facilitated via subversive market forces. It should be done through a decisive grass-roots campaign.
The approach should be much like how studios market their products to a target demographic. In this case, America would be marketing itself as a brand via pop culture to the people of Iran. Branding is a highly effective outreach method in corporate America, so why not extend that notion toward foreign policy? American pop culture is our best received export. I'm sure the Iranian people would appreciate even Hollywood's box office bombs more than being bombed.
Recently a delegation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences visited Iran to further the relationship between the two countries' film communities. Among the delegates was actress Annette Bening, who in an interview stated, "That was a big step, and the people who were there were all cinephiles and they were thrilled." Allowing such a cultural exchange proves that the current Iranian regime can't stifle the will of the people forever, and cultural influence just may be the best way to yield social and even political changes. In the meantime, another cousin who resides in Tehran just let me know through Facebook how much he's loving this season of Gossip Girl.
Farsh Askari, an Iranian-American, is a research and staff associate at Harvard Business School. He is working toward his master's at Harvard.