The young people who took to the streets in 1979 as part of the Iranian revolution are now in their sixties. They haven’t quite aged out of politics, but they’re getting close. It’s a dangerous time for any revolution when the generation that transformed society prepares to exit the stage. The rising generation often has the same urge to transform that the now Old Guard once had, but of course toward a different end.
Forty years after the Bolshevik Revolution, for instance, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalinism and set the Soviet Union on the path of reform, a fitful process from which it never really recovered. Forty years after the North Korean revolution, the country experienced the death of its first and until then only leader, which coincided with a horrific economic crisis that nearly precipitated regime collapse. Forty years after the Nicaraguan revolution, one-time teen revolutionary Daniel Ortega turned the guns of the government on student protestors in order to cling to power.
And now it’s the Iranian leadership’s turn.
Over the last month, demonstrations have spread throughout the country in response to the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested for the crime not of dispensing with a head covering—which would have constituted a deliberate flouting of the law—but failing to cover every last strand of hair on her head with the hijab. The government claimed that she died of a heart attack from an undisclosed health condition. Everyone else believes that she died after a severe beating at the hands of the morality police.
The protests started in the Kurdish part of the country—Amini was Kurdish—and then spread to the rest of Iran. They are still going strong.
Iran has experienced several waves of protests in response to dire economic conditions or rigged elections. But the latest protests somehow feel different. Young people are leading the charge. A number of young celebrities have put their careers at risk by joining the protestors. And demonstrators are not just grumbling about particular policies; they’re calling for an end to the current political system. They are shouting, “Death to the oppressor.” They’ve even demanded a death sentence for the most venerated figure in the system, Ayatollah Khamenei.
The crackdown from the government side has been predictably brutal, with more than 200 people killed so far. Unlike in Russia, also beset by perennial protests, Iranians show no sign of being beaten, jailed, or killed into submission.
Has the 1979 revolution finally run out of steam?
The failure of reform
The desperation of the current demonstrators speaks to the failure of Iranian reformers to change their society in any substantial way. Twice, these reformers have attempted to push Iran in a more accommodating direction only to hit up against the wall of conservative reaction.
In the 1997 elections, Mohammed Khatami received 70 percent of the vote, with strong backing from young people, women, and the intellectual elite. Although reelected in 2001, he was unable to overcome conservative resistance from either the clerics—of which he was one—or the parliament. “One crisis every nine days” was how Khatami’s supporters characterized the efforts of the hardliners to block his efforts to free up the media, loosen controls on social life, promote women’s rights, and cultivate religious tolerance. On the foreign policy front, Khatami tried to repair relations with the United States, visited several European countries as part of a campaign to cultivate warmer relations with the European Union, and helped start a Dialogue of Civilizations. One election later, thanks to a conservative backlash, the reformers were out and Iran was again an international pariah.
Reform part two came with the election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013. Again, across two terms, a reform-minded leader attempted to win some breathing room for the Iranian citizenry in a society hemmed in by the edicts of fundamentalist overseers. Rouhani’s agenda was similar in many ways to Khatami’s. He also invested much of his political capital in an agreement with the Obama administration that formally abandoned a nuclear weapons program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Again, the conservatives did their best to contain Rouhani’s ambitions. But it was Donald Trump, by unceremoniously exiting the nuclear agreement, who undermined the reformers’ chances of winning at the polls in 2021.
After Khatami, Iran swung over to conservative rule under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Similarly, after Rouhani has come Ebrahim Raisi, the current president.
Raisi, who won the presidential election in 2021 with the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic, has made it his mission to return Iran to its golden age of religious fundamentalism. Consider the issue of the hijab, which after the revolution became compulsory for women and girls over nine. That rule had become somewhat relaxed under reformers like Rouhani, who objected to undercover morality police relentlessly monitoring the strict observance of the law. “Our first duty is to respect people’s dignity and personality,” Rouhani said. “God has bestowed dignity to all human beings and this dignity precedes religion.”
Raisi has betrayed no such fondness for dignity. He not only implemented the original hijab law more forcefully but, in August, expanded its use to the Internet, so that women who posted their pictures without head coverings stood to lose their social rights for up to a year. Radio Farda reported back in August before the recent outbreak of demonstrations:
In recent weeks, women judged not to be in compliance have been barred from entering government offices, banks, or riding on public transportation. The notorious Guidance Patrols, or morality police, have become increasingly active and violent. Videos have emerged on social media appearing to show officers detaining women, forcing them into vans, and whisking them away.
It’s not as if anyone in Iran was in doubt as to Raisi’s hardline convictions or his determination to enforce them. In 1988, as a deputy prosecutor general, he played an instrumental role in the executions of thousands of political prisoners. He helped crack down on the Green Movement protests of 2009. Later, as chief of the Iranian judiciary, he continued to preside over the machinery of execution and the continued mistreatment of political prisoners.
“That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran,” observed Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, after the elections.
The reform movements of the past created certain expectations among key groups in Iran, particularly young people, women, and intellectuals. Hopes dashed, Iranians simply left the country, creating a substantial brain drain. Of those who remain, one out of three want out, though largely for economic reasons. This compares to a global average of 15 percent and a Middle Eastern average of 24 percent.
Although unemployment remains high and inflation has been rising, the Iranian economy has grown rather quickly during Raisi’s tenure, particularly the energy complex but also the service sector. The fruits of that growth, however, have not been equitably distributed. The latest protests are the result of two weather fronts colliding: economic dissatisfaction from vulnerable elements of the population and thwarted reform aspirations from the liberal-minded elite.
The resulting storm threatens the very foundations of the Iranian state.
Why these protests are different
At the beginning of October, Raisi visited Alzahra University in Tehran where he recited a poem comparing “rioters” to flies. He was met by young women chanting “Raisi get lost.” As one student told Reuters, “They can kill us, arrest us but we will not remain silent any more. Our classmates are in jail. How can we remain silent?”
Women in particular are incensed by Raisi’s efforts to put the reform toothpaste back into the toothpaste tube. As analysts Mehdi Alavi and Atul Singh write in Fair Observer,
Over the years, Iranian women have become highly educated. The percentage of females in higher education increased from 3% in 1978 to 59% in 2018. Women have entered almost all professions now. Their expectations have risen similarly. Even when there have been no protests, there is a simmering discontent among women about the restrictions they face on a daily basis.
But what makes the current protests different is generational. The young people of today are different from those who came out onto the streets in protests of the past. In some ways, they are just as fearless as their counterparts from 1979—and just as committed to regime change over regime reform. They want the Ayatollahs out as fervently as their predecessors wanted the Shah to go.
Dissident activist Ali Ashtari, who now lives in Canada, writes:
Iranian generations Y and Z are different from the nondescript and timid generations of the past. They are especially distinct from that of the “reform” period. This was my generation. When we came to the streets, we would listen to the words of self-appointed reformist leaders and protest in silence. When the riot police beat us with batons, we would chant, “Police force! Support us! Support!” Instead, a girl of generation Z sets her headscarf ablaze in front of the security forces and the boy saves his friend from the clutches of the regime’s plainclothes mercenaries with a Bruce Lee-style high kick.
Another difference this time is the willingness of young celebrities to join the protests. Singer Shervin Hajipour has provided an anthem for the protestors that ends with the oft-chanted line “For women, life, freedom.” Actress Hediye Tehrani, volleyball player Amirhossein Esfandiar, former soccer players Hossein Mahini and Hamidreza Aliasgari, and many others have risked arrest and the confiscation of their passports.
It’s not just young people who are protesting. It’s also schoolchildren. According to one estimate from the Revolutionary Guards, the average age of those arrested in “recent riots” was only 15 years old.
The one group that will determine the fate of Iran’s government has yet to join the protests: the Revolution Guard Corps itself. This “people’s army” numbers somewhere around 200,000 members with another 600,000 that can be mobilized under the plainclothes militia of the Basij. The Revolutionary Guard, which is separate from Iran’s military but can mount military operations, has considerable economic power within the system through the ownership of corporate and financial assets. There have not yet been any reports of serious defections from the Revolutionary Guards, the military, or the police force.
That is the major challenge facing the current protest movement in Iran. It has won the battle for hearts and minds, both within Iran and globally. But it doesn’t seem to have made any strategic inroads among the armed defenders of the regime. The latter fear that they will be executed—or at least divested of their privileges—if the protestors succeed in turning Iranian society upside down.
To achieve a more orderly and just transition in Iran, a ceasefire is needed in the winter-spring standoff between the revolutionary generation of 1979 and the revolutionary generation of today. Don’t expect a happy ending romance. But perhaps murderous animosity can give way to uneasy cohabitation. Iran’s youth have so much to offer the world, if only they can throw off the chains of their elders.