During my presidency of the Iran Delegation in the European Parliament, and more recently as Chair of its Subcommittee on Human Rights, I have worked extensively on Iran – together with exiled Iranians and refugees as much as with Ambassadors and other Iranian officials. Not surprisingly, it has proved much easier to discuss environmental issues or the vital role of Iran in the Middle East, than tackling the nuclear portfolio or the country's ever-more dire human rights situation. Still, I have tried to keep the dialogue with Iran as alive and broad as possible, on all relevant topics. Indeed, open and mutually honest negotiations are the only way forward; isolation won't help anyone, least of all the numerous Iranians struggling for a better future, political reforms, the rule of law and the fulfilment of their human rights.
In all areas of concern, young women and men have played a central role. More than anyone else, the youth has a direct interest in taking the future in its own hands and, if needed, in shouldering the often-heavy burden of trying to fundamentally transform society. This is not only true for countries such as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt or Syria – where thousands of mainly adolescent citizens have brought about what came to be known as the Arab Spring – but also for Iran, where a great number of young women and men have regularly taken to the streets since the controversial 2009 elections, risking their lives in a struggle for fair elections, freedom of thought and expression, equality and political participation.
Unfortunately, and despite all these efforts, the situation for young Iranians continues to be anything but hopeful – especially for those who have decided not to silently resign to their fate, but to struggle for change. Perhaps out of fear that the wave having agitated several Arab countries might also shake Iran, the government recently announced to pursue the creation of what they called “halal” Internet: a censored and entirely controlled web structure whose negative consequences would mainly hit younger generations. Also, the economic situation has worsened considerably, and unemployment among young professionals is at its peak. Repressive measures against women, the LGBTI community, artists and members of religious minorities further deteriorate the youth's outlook, and have resulted in such a tense feeling of fear and hopelessness that the number of teenagers and young adults preferring to leave their country and join the Iranian diaspora has been growing. This is particularly alarming since, in Iran as much as in other countries, change should primarily come from within.
Of course, the outside world can – through political or economic support, or via different means of pressure if needed – play an influential role in a given reform process. Officially, the recently adopted EU oil embargo against Iran is supposed to do exactly that: increase external pressure, in order to have the country's officials accept further negotiations in the nuclear dossier. Personally, however, I have serious doubts regarding the success of this decision. Sanctions should always be targeted, in order to hit those responsible for the difficult economic and political situation, not the population at large. An embargo against the most important economic sector in Iran, by contrast, will most definitely bring further hardship to the Iranian people. It might even shut the door for negotiations, and strengthen the government, by giving Tehran the opportunity to use the sanctions as an excuse for its own shortcomings.
Safeguarding an open debate and mutual respect should be prioritised, even if external pressure – if it is well designed – might help bring about transformation. Still, the main impulse must come from inside the country. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we, Iranians or not, continue to name the existing difficulties and discuss possible alternatives, including in those areas most relevant to the youth of Iran: education, gender and trans-gender issues, sports and arts, political freedom, economics and unemployment, inadequate protection laws, as well as the marginalisation of ethnic and religious minorities. The present publication contributes to this endeavour: not to demonise Iran and its people, neither to give up hope that change is possible, but to make the latter an option within reach.