Over the last few decades of Iran’s political history, the country has periodically experienced surges of social unrest that have developed into either riotous insurgency or full-blown revolution, respectively dissolved by the iron fist of the regime or appropriated by high-handed political groups. The most recent waves of revolt that have seen tens of thousands of citizens take to the streets to express their disillusionment depict a population whose tolerance, not only for the practises of the Iranian regime, but for the entire ruling body of the Islamic Republic, has been exhausted.
In times of dissent, the importance of the role played by Iran’s youth cannot be underestimated. During the course of its tumultuous contemporary history, the country’s student population has played a crucial role in the emergence of uprising after uprising. Iran’s July 1999 protests, constituting the fiercest civil dissention to have gripped the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, were heralded by the activities of disillusioned, pro-democratic university students who deemed the closure of a reformist newspaper to be the last straw in their tolerance of the regime. The historic 1979 revolution itself, which saw the 2,500 year-long reign of the US-backed Pahlavi dynasty dissolved in anticipation of the Grand Ayatollah’s Republic, initially arose as a result of the insurgency of armed workers organising a labour strike.
Similar to the upheavals which preceded it, the latest string of protests which have taken place since the end of last year – involving over 20 deaths and 400 arrests during clashes between citizens and the authorities – has been spearheaded by the country’s youth. An astonishing 90 percent of those arrested during the first weeks of the demonstrations were under 25 years old, with the pulse of the protests lying at Tehran University, whose students constituted nearly 10 percent of those arrested. While the overrepresentation of the youth in those facing penalty by the regime can be elucidated by the fact that they are a demographic particularly negatively affected by economic hardship – more than half of the population is under the age of thirty – it needn’t be overlooked that the Iranian government possesses a debilitating fear of the force of its youthful population. Indeed, the regime is striving to learn from experience by stifling any possibility of a second revolution, while this sort of development is exactly what some of the protesters have been calling for.
The unrest has often been likened to the furore that was provoked in response to the country’s disputed 2009 presidential election, which saw rallies of millions take place in opposition to the controversial victory of the then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although both predicaments, then and now, have arisen as a result of widespread dissatisfaction with Iran’s political repression and economic stagnation, a distinction must be made between the social composition of the protesters and the nature of the demands being made in both events. While the protests a decade ago were based on antagonism between the election’s two different factions – conservatives and reformers – the current protests represent a grassroots initiative instigated by less ostensibly favoured groups of the population who have entirely lost faith in a political system in which they were still invested less than a decade ago. Significantly, however, this time around both political factions have been rejected.
The US has weighed in on the country’s social dissention, a response keenly awaited around the globe considering the power’s central role in orchestrating the 2015 Nuclear Deal which saw an agreement reached for Iran to curb its nuclear proliferation ambitions in exchange for a lessening of international financial sanctions on the country. On top of its calls for the Islamic Republic to release its political prisoners, the Trump administration has responded by imposing fresh sanctions on the regime, an action which will doubtless have a negligent effect on the Iranian general population. Although the initial lifting of financial sanctions was indeed economically advantageous for the country, which experienced a 12.3% GDP growth as a result, the economic stagnation experienced by the majority of Iranian citizens who reaped very little of the benefits of the deal continued, while the heads of the regime simply got richer.
In fact, it seems that the international response to the protests has added fuel to the fire as throngs of pro-government protesters also took to the streets only one day after the Iranian government publically accused the US of abusing its power by enacting a rapid alternation of the conditions of the sanctions. Yet the Iranian administration would be erroneous in asserting that the deliberate meddling of foreign powers with the goal of inciting anti-government sentiment has emerged as the single most important provocation of the protests. A population does not rise up and oppose their oppression because they are told to rise up and oppose their oppression. Instead, it is more viable to suggest that the dissention ultimately emerged from the people losing their investment in the illusion that the Islamic republic has sold them over the decades – the population is rebelling because they deem themselves, now, to have no other choice.
In response to all the conflict, a school of thought has arisen that exudes a distinct optimism.
The increasingly popular notion of a projected secularisation of Iran deriving from the cultivation of “a home-grown democracy” that has thrived out of the calls for freedom for the protests heralds the contemplation of a fresh socio-political configuration that would enact what the proponents of the 1979 Revolution strived to do. Namely, a cross-pollination of the country’s traditional beliefs with its new ideas in the formation of a political system that is more faithful to the longings of the greater part of its population.
If this sounds a little bit idealistic, that is because it probably is. However, as the phenomenon of the realisation of political ideologies in the real world transpires as an attempt by man to utilise his abstractions in order to better his material circumstances, the Iranian people have as much of a right as any other people to recapture their civic freedoms and erase the target placed on the backs of those who dare to speak.