The Gen Z rebellion against Iran’s regime

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Protests in Iran often carry a grim fatalism. Recent uprisings that have garnered global attention have been crushed by a state adept at the tools of coercion. There have been bloody raids, arrests and enforced disappearances, and online censorship.

When anger roils the streets – ignited by economic troubles, political desperation, and a cascade of other pent-up frustrations in a nation suffering four decades of theocratic dictatorship – it is quelled by the iron hand of a regime that brooks little dissent.

The unrest of the last few weeks may represent something else. The death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died in Iran’s morality custody, has sparked a stunning youth revolt across the country. City after city has seen protests from students and other ordinary Iranians denouncing draconian restrictions on what women can wear in public. Videos of crowds chanting “Women, life, freedom!” are circulating on social media. Notably, so has the call for “death of the dictator” – a direct, strident condemnation of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei.

The protests were met with predictable brutality. As documented by my colleagues on the Washington Post’s visual forensics team, on numerous occasions the Iranian authorities have fired at demonstrations indiscriminately. According to human rights groups, more than 100 people have been killed by security forces so far. The deaths of two more teenage girls at the hands of local authorities have reignited passions. More than a thousand people were arrested, including dozens of local journalists.

Iran’s protesters appear undaunted. According to researchers, demand for virtual private network apps to circumvent the regime’s cyber controls in the country has increased by 3,000 percent as anti-regime and anti-headscarf demonstrations continue.

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“Despite the violence of the security forces – and the daily power cuts – the protesters are still on the streets. For some, the crackdown has only made them more determined,” my colleagues wrote, citing a conversation with an interviewee in the Iranian capital. “The protester in Tehran recalled a scene from a recent protest where he and his compatriots dragged trash cans into the street and set them on fire.

“As security guards approached on motorcycles, they began chanting, ‘We didn’t have our people killed to compromise.'”

The Islamic Republic emerged in 1979 from a mass protest movement against an autocratic monarchy. Many of its ruling elites are holdovers from that revolutionary era, reflecting a status quo that, while entrenched, is also calcifying and seemingly unable to change. The toll of sanctions, economic mismanagement and years of political hyperbole in Iran’s neighborhood is now haunting the regime whose rhetoric of revolution and resistance to Western imperialists is more hollow than ever.

“Something feels like it’s about to fall apart, as if the Islamic Republic project is running out of steam and the black wave of the 1979 revolution is ebbing, exhausted by recurring protests that have been building on one another since 2009 and reaching new heights since 2017,” writes Kim Ghattas in the Atlantic. She points to rising anti-Iranian sentiment in countries once dominated by Tehran’s proxies, such as Lebanon and Iraq.

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Hostility toward the Iranian regime abroad is at its highest level in many years. Solidarity protests with Iranian women have taken place in cities around the world. MEPs cut their hair in symbolic solidarity. The Biden administration imposed fresh sanctions on top Iranian officials involved in cutting off internet access and attacking protesters.

This week, Khamenei referred to the unrest as “riots” and blamed it on foreign agitators. This age-old scapegoat mentality can hardly mollify a revolt fueled by young people who seem fed up with the crippling, suffocating controls imposed on them by an aging crop of ideologues. In an interview with the Iranian Speaking to business daily Donyaye Eqtesad, sociologist Maghsoud Farastkhah argued that the protesters, who are just as online as their contemporaries in other parts of the world, want a normal life that is still unattainable for them due to their country’s closed political system.

“Generation Z sees itself in a dystopian atmosphere,” said Farastkhah.

The level of anger at the status quo marks a departure from previous rounds of protest. Consider the 2009 uprising that followed a presidential election that was widely seen as rigged in favor of the theocratic regime’s preferred candidate. She idolized political actors who, in a sense, were still part of the establishment. “The discourse of this movement was a reformist discourse, it did not call for a complete break with the framework of the Islamic Republic,” Mohammad Ali Kadivar, an Iran Fellow at Boston College, told the Los Angeles Times. “Women were present in 2009. … Women’s issues were articulated in 2009, I think. But they didn’t have the leading role they have now.”

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Her leadership has crystallized something even more radical – a more overt rejection of the Islamic Republic as a whole, building on years of growing disenchantment. “With Amini’s death in custody, we heard a certain raw truth expressed in protest slogans and comments on social media: the idea that freedom for all remains elusive when there is no freedom for women,” Nahid wrote Siamdoust in New Lines Magazine.

The rawness of the anger makes it difficult to predict where the protests will go. Analysts see the movement as without real leadership and with little coordination or leverage from Iran’s vast and politicized diaspora. “One of the most amazing aspects of the current movement is that it is predominantly composed of young Iranians under the age of 25 who not only identify themselves as opponents of Islamist ideology – they are also avowedly alien to the mindset of the older generation. including anti-regime politicians,” wrote Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Their anger may reflect a social explosion rather than a political movement. But that doesn’t make it any less powerful. “A revolutionary turn does not necessarily depend on the number of active demonstrators; it emerges from a dead end,” wrote Iran-based journalist Mahzad Elyassi. “Following Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech in which he called the protests ‘riots’ and blamed a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, the obstruction has never been clearer.”

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