The revolutionary ambitions of Iran’s Generation Z

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

Narges, a young Iranian protester, walks confidently through ranks of riot police on her way to work with long, black, wavy hair clearly on show. In another country her appearance would be unremarkable, but in the Islamic republic which has strict rules about what women can wear in public, it is unthinkable. More unusual still is the response: nothing.

This flagrant defiance of wearing a compulsory hijab in public is becoming a new normal — something women like Narges could not have imagined before the tragic death of Mahsa Amini a month ago. The 22-year-old Kurdish woman died in the custody of morality police on September 16 after allegedly violating the Islamic dress code. Her death has outraged Iranians and sparked nationwide protests that have, in turn, provoked a heavy-handed, lethal response from the state.

Generation Z has surprised the country — and the world — by refusing to back down during one of the most widespread and long-lasting anti-regime demonstrations in the Islamic republic’s history.

“Woman, life, freedom” has become the battle cry of young men and women in the streets, on university campuses and in schools. Their ultimate goal, protesters say, is to overthrow the Islamic republic in favour of a secular, democratic system, even if the cost is their lives. They are facing down a regime supported by formidable institutions such as the elite Revolutionary Guards and a multi-layered network of loyalists and businessmen whose interests depend on a continuation of the status quo.

Nonetheless, the protests are a serious warning to Iran’s rulers that they are grappling with a different generation, many of whom do not relate to the regime’s ideology and are furious about being deprived of the everyday freedoms and opportunities afforded to their international peers.

Their movement has the potential to inspire more demonstrations and strikes as a cost of living crisis deepens, posing one of the most significant threats to the Islamic republic’s 43-year dominance.

Top leaders — at least publicly — dismiss the idea that the anti-regime protests are a historic turning point and are showing no signs of making any structural or constitutional concessions. Analysts do not expect the regime to rethink a supreme leader as ultimate authority, its hostility towards the US, flexing muscles in the Middle East, or expansion of the nuclear programme. Protesters, who have radical ambitions for their country’s future, say that the time for knee-jerk political gestures has run out. The impasse has many Iranians worried about difficult days ahead.

The stand-off has repercussions for the country’s long-term stability. In a joint statement, five prominent economists have likened the growing chorus for change to “a flood which has been roaring but has suddenly faced a deadlock”. They say the choice facing political leaders is either to clear the way or let the floodgates burst and unleash a torrent of disruption.

Extensive poverty, corruption of those linked to the regime and declining political participation in recent years have all weakened social capital and fostered a sense of hopelessness, the economists say. In addition, Iranian families’ welfare has, on average, declined by 37 per cent over the past decade, causing the middle class to shrink.

Narges, 27, says it is this gloomy picture that makes her generation’s fight inevitable: the prosperous future she dreams of, one full of fun and pleasure, cannot be achieved living under theocracy. “I do value going out without a hijab and the regime’s forces completely ignore me while passers-by say ‘bravo’ to women like me,” she says. “But this system has inflicted irreparable damage to us from our childhood. Only its collapse can help us end inequalities between men and women and have freedom for the most basic, normal things.”

Generation Unrest

Iran has long had a robust protest culture; a symptom of the country’s internal struggle to transition from a traditional society to a modern one. Its contemporary history has been shaped by regular pockets of social unrest and several uprisings including two revolutions — a constitutional one more than a century ago and the 1979 Islamic revolution. A slow shift towards greater modernity and more progress for women has become more urgent as a new generation grows impatient.

The last national census six years ago showed those aged between 10 to 24 years old make up about 22 per cent of the population of 80mn. Their values contrast sharply with those of Iran’s ageing yet determined leaders, some of whom are in their nineties. An increasingly educated population, including women who occupy about 60 per cent of university places, fast-paced urban development and wider access to the internet and smartphones, have raised public expectations. Young people want fair and transparent government, better welfare, decent jobs as well as the ability to travel abroad and enjoy a healthy sex life — not necessarily within marriage.

Iran’s Generation Z, who have grown up with the internet and satellite television, say the things they are fighting for are incompatible with a system that demands an Islamic lifestyle; early marriage, more children and defending one’s religion against threats. Protecting these values, however, is essential for the regime to satisfy millions of zealous loyalists in Iran and the Middle East who represent one of its main pillars of power.

Major General Mohammad Bagheri, Iran’s chief of staff for the armed forces, has warned his military commanders that “traditional approaches will not work anymore” if it wants to foil threats to power such as those fuelled by social media. He positioned the protest movement as part of a wider battle against foreign influence.

“Today, we are facing multiple military, cultural, newly emerged and sometimes unknown threats from the enemy targeting us either simultaneously or in thoughtful combinations,” he said. “We have to be ready for . . . a hybrid warfare which is extraordinarily heavy and complicated work for us and armed forces’ commanders.”

Ahmad Zeidabadi, a reformist political analyst and a former political prisoner, said in an interview with the semi-official ILNA news agency that “part of the system thinks power, dignity and wealth belongs to insiders and its loyalists . . . while the rest of the people have no rights such as establishing political parties, running for elections and taking part in decision making and hence they have no right to protest.”

It is this political order that protesters are pushing back against, many of whom come from the urban middle class who, until recently, were widely regarded across society as spoiled and pampered by their privileged, educated families. Now they stand in front of riot police showing no fear of being killed.

Over the past month, more than 40 protesters have died, according to state television. Amnesty International says 144 men, women and children have lost their lives, including 20 teenage boys and 3 girls. Bijan Abdolkarimi, a professor of philosophy at Islamic Azad University, says the failure to understand this country’s youth is a mis-step.

“This generation is rebellious and accepts no one else’s authority be it a father’s at home, or teachers’ at school or university,” he told the reformist Etemad daily newspaper. “It doesn’t accept men’s authority over women and . . . fights with tradition and questions all its principles . . . The worst way to deal with them is police, military and security approaches.”

Anger piles up

Dissent, however, is not limited to the younger generation. There have been at least three other major protests since 2009 led by the middle and working classes in which hundreds were killed. Protests involving farmers, teachers, pensioners and workers have been frequent.

The latest crisis follows decades of disappointment in successive political leaders to deliver change. Political reforms initiated in 1997 by Mohammad Khatami, then president, were met with resistance from hardliners. Later, centrist president Hassan Rouhani promised a more functioning economy under a nuclear deal that his government signed with world powers in 2015. The deal collapsed in 2018 when the US, under the Trump administration, pulled out.

The election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as president last year marked a new low. Turnout was 48.8 per cent — one of the poorest on record after main rivals were not allowed to run. This was the moment pro-democracy groups say the road to any reforms hit a dead end. Mehdi Behabadi, head of semi-official ISPA opinion poll centre, says “a considerable majority” of Iranians harbour “anger” towards the Islamic republic “a factor which is at a dangerous level”.

The average age of protesters is also getting younger, he adds, and includes those under 20 years old, while the number of women protesters is “very close” to men. “Every time there has been widespread protests, they subside only superficially while the anger piles up increasing the level of violence [next time],” he says. Behabadi also believes the number of demonstrators in recent years is only “a tiny percentage of all those who are angry” because many believe that history has shown the risk of participation outweighs the reward.

Aila, a 19-year-old computer engineering student, is sympathetic but has chosen not to join protests at her university. “I’d like to see the Islamic republic gone as I see no future for myself in my homeland with all the injustice, gender discrimination, gloomy economic perspective and waste of talents,” she says. “But I don’t see an option for a successor and surely don’t want to see insecurity that the absence of an established government can bring.”

Iran’s leaders are encouraged that the protests have not yet snowballed into mass demonstrations. Labourers have held some sporadic strikes, but teachers, farmers, businessmen and the pious masses, including mid-ranking clergy, are largely in a wait-and-see mood.

Meanwhile, Iranians overseas are urging silent supporters to rise up, organising demonstrations in western capitals and lobbying for international backing. But this disparate opposition is not seen as a viable alternative to the regime, partly because they are far from unified themselves. It is for this reason that a regime insider close to hardline forces says the protests are not seen as an immediate threat to the Islamic republic.

“Protesters are not from a political party, they don’t have a leader. They are not ideologically motivated to die for their causes. As soon as they get arrested, they express regret,” he says. “Iran’s opposition overseas is no threat. Can they all get together and have one charismatic leader like Imam [Ruhollah] Khomeini to take out millions of supporters on to the streets [as happened in the 1979 revolution]? No.” The insider adds there will be no significant concessions beyond measures such as an unspoken and relaxed approach to wearing hijabs in public.

But with the unrest and brutal crackdowns playing out on platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp thanks to tech-savvy protesters who use VPNs to circumvent bans on social media, analysts say the republic is losing the media war and is being discredited at home and abroad. The overseas opposition also uses foreign-based and foreign-funded satellite television to convince Iranians that a revolution is in the making and that a united front can finally bring down 43 years of the Islamic republic.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the target of slogans such as “death to the dictator”, denies the dissent is homegrown and instead has blamed external players including the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. “The only solution is to resist,” he says. For many Iranians, his response underlines how out of touch the regime is.

Shahla, a housewife and mother of two teenage boys, says the main reason she protests is because the political system shows too little leniency towards ordinary people. “What I hate the most is that the Islamic republic protects the most junior members of its loyalists but is so tough on us,” she says. “Why is it a problem to say one individual made a mistake in the case of Amini and apologise?”

A regime under pressure

Although analysts say those at the top of Iran’s political system remain united in how to deal with the discontent, another regime insider says those at the mid-level are unhappy at seeing young protesters being killed and think the response has gone too far. They believe, he says, that the regime should listen to protesters and take actions while the 83-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei is alive.

His death — and the rumoured succession of his second son, Mojtaba — could make any reforms far more complicated or near impossible, he adds, because protesters have made clear they will not accept him.

Protesters meanwhile see no benefit in talking with the authorities. Moein, a 23-year-old history student, says the Islamic republic has no intention to change its structures of power. “People from a motorcycle delivery man to a doctor have reached a stage where they don’t want to give up on their demands which are equal rights for men and women and freedom,” he says. Even if protests are suppressed, he adds, “we shall see bigger protests in the future as these demands will not disappear”.

Analysts agree. “The pent-up political demands . . . are now manifested in non-controversial, inclusive slogans such as ‘woman, life, freedom’,” says Saeed Hajjarian, a strategist for reformists. “This shows the centre of gravity of the society’s demands has shifted from politics to citizens’ rights . . . for all social classes rather than only the urban middle class.” Iran’s hardliners warn that the continuation of protests is putting Iran’s territorial integrity at risk and could embolden separatists to fight the central government in a country which includes ethnicities such as Arabs, Kurds, Baluchis, Turks and Sunni Muslims.

While protests in Iranian Kurdistan have intensified since Amini’s death, people in the city of Zahedan, home to ethnic Baluchis and Sunnis, have separately clashed with the authorities after a 15-year-old girl was allegedly raped by a senior police official. Amnesty estimates at least 82 were killed, but officials put deaths at 19. Pushback against the regime protests also coincides with renewed calls from politicians to sign a nuclear deal with the Biden administration and put an end to US sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors.

A lack of movement on the deal is fuelling public frustration as inflation reaches 42.1 per cent and the youth unemployment rate climbs to 23 per cent. Nuclear talks remain deadlocked after Washington and Tehran failed to agree on the most recent draft proposed by the EU, the mediator in those negotiations. Diplomats and analysts do not expect any progress until after the US midterms in November.

Some politicians say securing a deal is vital to help quell discontent. Ali Larijani, a former conservative Speaker of parliament, says: “The sooner this problem is resolved the more it is to the benefit of the Islamic republic. People should not be under this much pressure.”

Narges, a trained IT engineer, is working as an accountant and earns a monthly salary of about $250 which barely covers her daily expenses. She envies the lives of the young people and teenagers in other countries that she obsessively follows on YouTube.

“I feel that not only have I never experienced the pleasures of teenagers in the US, Britain, Australia, I cannot use my own creativity and talent to have a decent salary and be hopeful about my future,” she says.

The only option, she says, is to continue protesting “until we defeat the Islamic republic even though I’m aware the system is frightening and vengeful.”

Posted on Financial Times October 16, 2022.

Feature image: A burning motorcycle in the Iranian capital. The protests after the death of Mahsa Amini have in turn provoked a heavy-handed response from the state © AFP via Getty Images.

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