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What I learned by befriending Iranians on Facebook

When international negotiators announced this week that they'd reached a deal to limit Iran's nuclear program, Iranians took to the streets, celebrating the prospect of the easing of sanctions and the potential for better ties with the West.

It was a very different Iran from the one most Americans see on the news. An international outcast since its Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Iranian government has spewed apocalyptic rhetoric and sponsored international terror. Throughout the negotiations on the nuclear deal, Iran's critics have painted the Islamic Republic as an untrustworthy adversary that will cheat its way to a nuclear bomb at the first opportunity.

But what of Iranians themselves? Few Americans get to travel to Iran and come back with stories of its people or culture. My first impressions of Iran, like many people's, were informed by an array of images of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution and atrocities committed in its name. I learned of the blood spilt abroad by terror attacks Iran had sponsored. I listened to interviews with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the bombastic former president who denied the Holocaust and insisted that the world would end on his watch.

It would be easy to come away from all this with an image of Iran as a nation of crazed zealots. But making friends with 25 young Iranians on Facebook has made me realize how warped this view of Iran is.

Through months of interaction, I began to realize just how much we have in common. We enjoy the same movies, the same YouTube videos, the same memes. And not one of them seemed to hate Americans. On the contrary, each was excited to be friends with me. Many of them offered their home to me if I ever visited. In short, they didn't sound anything like their hard-line Islamist regime.

This matters. Iran's young people make up more than 60 percent of its population. Born after the revolution of 1979, this generation doesn't feel the same fervor as their parents did for the Islamic Republic's original mission. Instead, they want economic opportunity and global connection.

Iran Age Breakdown
Youth are the largest age group in Iran ... by far.

My new friends don't speak for an entire nation of 77 million people, of course. But they do give a glimpse into an Iran that most Americans don't get to see — a country that's changing.