The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Gen Z rebellion against Iran’s regime

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Protests in Iran often carry with them a grim sense of fatalism. Uprisings in the recent past that captured global attention were crushed by a state well-versed in the instruments of coercion. There were bloody crackdowns, arrests and disappearances, and online censorship.

When anger roils the streets — kindled by economic woes, political despair and a cascade of other pent-up frustrations in a nation chafing under four decades of theocratic dictatorship — it is muffled by the iron hand of a regime that brooks little dissent.

The unrest of the past few weeks may constitute something different. The death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who perished in the custody of Iran’s morality piece, has sparked an astonishing youth revolt across the country. City after city has seen protests by students and other ordinary Iranians denouncing the draconian restrictions on what women can wear in public. Videos of crowds chanting “women, life, freedom!” proliferate on social media. So, too, remarkably, do calls for “death to the dictator” — a direct, strident denunciation of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

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

Iran’s protesters seem undaunted. According to researchers, demand for virtual private network apps to circumvent the regime’s cyber controls has spiked by 3,000 percent within the country, while demonstrations against the regime and the wearing of the headscarf continue.

“Despite the violence by security forces — and the daily blackouts — protesters are still in the streets. To some, the crackdown has only made them more determined,” my colleagues wrote, pointing to 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 forces approached on motorcycles, they began to chant: ‘We didn’t have our people killed in order to compromise.’”

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

“Something feels like it’s coming undone, as though the project of the Islamic Republic is running out of steam and the black wave unleashed by the 1979 revolution is ebbing, exhausted by recurrent protests, building on top of one another since 2009, and reaching new heights since 2017,” Kim Ghattas writes in the Atlantic. She points to mounting anti-Iranian sentiment building in countries once dominated by Tehran’s proxies, such as Lebanon and Iraq.

Abroad, the ill-will toward the Iranian regime is at its highest level in many years. Solidarity protests with Iranian women have taken place in cities across the world. European parliamentarians have cut their hair in symbolic solidarity. The Biden administration imposed new sanctions on senior Iranian officials involved with the shutdowns on internet access and the assaults on protesters.

This week, Khamenei cast the unrest as “riots” and blamed it on foreign agitators. That age-old scapegoating can hardly assuage a revolt that is being driven by young people who seem fed up with the stultifying, stifling controls placed on them by an aging crop of ideologues. In an interview with the Iranian economic daily Donyaye Eqtesad, sociologist Maghsoud Farastkhah argued that the protesters, who are as online as their contemporaries in other parts of the world, want a normal life that is yet out of reach for them because of their country’s closed political system.

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

The level of fury at the status quo marks a departure from earlier rounds of protests. Consider the uprising in 2009 which followed a presidential election that was widely viewed as rigged in favor of the theocratic regime’s favored candidate. It lionized political actors who were still, in some sense, part of the establishment. “The discourse of that movement was a reformist discourse, it was not calling for a full break from the framework of the Islamic Republic,” Mohammad Ali Kadivar, an Iran scholar at Boston College, told the Los Angeles Times. “Women were present in 2009. … Women’s issues were I think articulated in 2009. But they didn’t have the leading role that they have now.”

Their leading role has crystallized something all the more radical — a more overt rejection of the entire Islamic Republic, built on years of growing disenchantment. “It was with Amini’s death in custody that we heard a certain raw truth enunciated in protest slogans and social media commentary: the idea that liberty for all remained elusive unless there was liberty for women,” wrote Nahid Siamdoust in New Lines Magazine.

The rawness of the rage makes it hard to predict where the protests will go. Analysts see the movement as operating without real leadership and with little coordination or influence from the vast and politicized Iranian diaspora. “One of the most astonishing aspects of the current movement is that it is overwhelmingly composed of young Iranians under age twenty-five who identify themselves as more than just 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 more so than a political movement. But that makes it no less potent. “A revolutionary turn does not necessarily depend on the number of active protesters; it arises from a dead-end situation,” wrote Iran-based journalist Mahzad Elyassi. “Following Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech in which he called the protests ‘riots’ and blamed a foreign plot for the unrest, the obstruction has never been clearer.”