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Source: NY Times

Jul 10, 2024

Iran’s Gen Z Is Still Waiting for the Revolution

By Holly Dagres

Ms. Dagres is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East program and curator of The Iranist Substack.

A young Iranian woman wore baggy jeans, a backpack slung over one shoulder and a black mask, presumably to protect her identity. Allowing her auburn hair to flow freely in contravention of the Islamic Republic’s mandatory hijab rules, she proceeded to spray-paint in Persian on a wall in the holy city of Mashhad, “Khamenei you’re next.”

Her stark warning for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei came in May just one day after the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash. And while undeniably dangerous, the act of defiance, recorded on video in Mr. Raisi’s hometown and widely circulated on social media, isn’t out of the ordinary these days in Iran, where a generation of youth is deeply disillusioned with the status quo and wants the geriatric clerical establishment ruling Iran gone.

Young Iranians’ discontent played a critical role in the recent elections to replace Mr. Raisi, when a majority of the nation rejected the nezam — the system — and boycotted the polls. According to Iran’s official count, just 40 percent of registered voters participated in the first round of voting on June 28, the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s 45-year history. That number went up in last week’s runoff to about 50 percent, though some suspect real turnout may be even lower. Elections in Iran are neither free nor fair, and videos from across the country showed empty polling stations. In the end, the so-called reformist Masoud Pezeshkian won over the hard-liner Saeed Jalili.

For millions of Iranians, there was no acceptable choice: Both candidates were approved by the Guardian Council, a 12-member vetting body, six of whom are handpicked by Mr. Khamenei. But the breadth of the boycott appears to have put the regime on the back foot. The supreme leader took longer than usual to deliver his customary message congratulating the people of Iran for voting. The fact that so many groups — dissidents, activists, bereaved families of slain protesters among them — joined in this act of civil disobedience signaled to the regime and to the world that they don’t want an Islamic republic.

The bleak turnout wasn’t unexpected. Soon after the election was announced, the hashtags #NoWayI’llVote and #ElectionCircus began circulating on X along with calls to sit out the vote. According to a survey conducted by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN) in June, of those Iranians who said they planned not to vote or were undecided, nearly 70 percent cited their “opposition to the overall system of the Islamic Republic” as their reason.

Before the second round of voting on July 5, another hashtag, #TreacherousMinority, popped up criticizing those who planned to cast their ballot for Mr. Pezeshkian, who opposes the violence that has become synonymous with mandatory hijab enforcement and advocates closer ties to the West. Some equated the act of getting your index finger dipped in ink after voting with sticking a finger in protesters’ blood.

Many of those who said they planned to boycott the vote on social media belonged to Nasleh Zed, or Gen Z, a phrase that has only recently entered the Persian lexicon though about 60 percent of Iran’s nearly 90 million people are under 30. They are largely the first in Iran to grow up with illegal satellite dishes and censored internet reached through VPNs, giving them a window onto the free world. As they came of age with the same needs and wants as youth everywhere, Gen Z Iranians watched successive presidents vow to improve their lives as things only got worse, triggering a wave of mass protests and brutal crackdowns.

The violent state backlash reached its nadir during Aban Khoonin, or Bloody November, in 2019, when security forces reportedly killed 1,500 protesters, including children, under the darkness of a total internet shutdown. The fact that this state-sponsored violence transpired on the watch of President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate politician who had promised change through an improved economy and better relations with the West through a nuclear deal, confirmed for many that it didn’t matter who was in power in Iran under the current system; authoritarianism reigned supreme. Three years later, thousands of young Iranians braved bullets and batons on the front lines of the 2022 Women, Life, Freedom uprising, a monthslong anti-establishment protest that posed the greatest internal threat to the clerical establishment in its decades of rule.

As this tech-savvy generation circumvents blocks to scroll through their social media feeds, they plainly see how aghazadehs, or children of the elites, are living their best lives on Instagram, driving the latest-model Maseratis, eating steak wrapped in gold leaf and doused in caviar, and continuing to benefit from nepotism, systemic corruption and the black market economy. This, while the average Iranian — living in a resource-rich country that funnels the people’s money to proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah — is struggling to pay the bills with high inflation. Thirty percent of Iranians now live under the poverty line.

“Young Iranians see no bright future for themselves, as the situation keeps getting worse and worse,” said Roya Piraei, a 26-year-old woman who now lives in Britain, having left Iran after her mother was shot and killed by security forces during the 2022 uprising. The current system, Ms. Piraei told me, “cannot meet the needs of the people.”

Many members of Gen Z blame their parents and grandparents for ushering in an Islamic republic after the revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979 and continuing to accept the current situation, hoping for incremental reform. They don’t see the difference, as some of the older generation do, between “principalist” politicians, known as hard-liners in the West, and “reformists” like Mr. Pezeshkian. Various memes of pink nooses festooned in flowers and morality police wearing pink bows made the point that the reformist camp offers a version of the clerical establishment that is friendlier on the surface only. To them, these men are all “footmen” of Mr. Khamenei, the ultimate decision maker on domestic and foreign policies.

To the Iranians who voted for Mr. Pezeshkian, the incoming president offers hope of some reprieve from the hard-line government of Mr. Raisi and the country’s dire economic situation. During his campaign, Mr. Pezeshkian, who in contrast to his predecessor weaves English phrases into conversation, vowed to “stand against” the morality police and online censorship rules, and called for “constructive relations” with the West by returning Iran to the nuclear negotiating table.

Mr. Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old cardiac surgeon and member of parliament has surrounded himself with advisers from the Rouhani era, including former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who helped secure the Iran nuclear deal, and former Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi. The latter, who played a key role in the November 2019 internet shutdown, tried to sound hip on X by using English slang to call on Nasleh Zed to support Mr. Pezeshkian after the election. A user replied, “Vaghan eww” (“Really eww”).

Even if the president-elect is able to deliver on his agenda — which would happen only with the blessing of the supreme leader — he is unlikely to satisfy those Iranians who already see the Islamic Republic as irredeemable. This is especially true of Nasleh Zed, who will not easily forget the faces of those killed and brutalized by the state over the years.

To them, as long as an octogenarian cleric and his allies continue to rule over their country, Iran can’t be free.

Art work by: Sheida Soleimani

Holly Dagres is an Iranian American who spent her formative years in Iran. She is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East program and the curator of The Iranist Substack.

Source images by Christine Spengler/Sygma via Getty Images.

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