The vast majority of political power in Iran today lies in the hands of old bearded men in robes and turbans, plus the minor exception of a short cartoonish-looking man with a penchant for provocation and Members Only jackets. That reality, however, is bound to change in the years to come, as young Iranians start entering the political sphere.
As the driving force behind the massive protests that followed the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the summer of 2009, Iranian youths have demonstrated that they are committed to democracy, as well as social and political reform. Over 70% of Iranians are under the age of 35, and with increasing political corruption and rising unemployment and inflation (not to mention the constant annoyances of censorship, absurd “morality” laws and archaic dress codes), these young Iranians are growing progressively more disenchanted with the current regime.
The pro-democracy Green Movement that emerged in 2009 had been brewing for at least a decade. The largest mass protests before that summer occurred a decade earlier, in the summer of 1999. Again, youth were at the forefront. Thus, the series of demonstrations in 2009 that drew over a million protesters into the streets of Tehran and other major Iranian cities represented a kind of sequel to the 1999 student demonstrations that drew thousands. The fact that by 2009 the number of demonstrators had increased several hundred-fold since 1999 speaks to the growing discontent among Iranian youths and their determination to seek social and economic reforms. Likewise, it speaks to the great potential for a trilogy.
While the 2009 demonstrations didn’t lead to an Egypt-style revolution, they did permanently alter the landscape of Iranian politics. For one, thanks to the most-recent disputed presidential election in which the results were announced before the votes were counted, voter confidence in the legitimacy of the current regime is arguably at its lowest levels since the revolution. Furthermore, because the regime has been unable to increase employment opportunities for growing numbers of university graduates, many young, educated and unemployed youths are falling victim to the trappings of desperate economic times.
For example, despite the Iranian regime’s routine executions of drug dealers and even mere users, drug abuse has become a serious problem, one that has disproportionately affected youth. The latest drug of choice is a new form of condensed heroin, known on the streets as “crack,” that is much more potent and addictive. It has ravaged futures and families alike.
Iran has also become a hub for human trafficking, and unfortunately for humans, the government has been far more committed to pursuing those trafficking drugs than people.
Finally, while official statistics are hard to come by, suicide also appears to be on the rise—yet another plague that unduly targets youth.
In short, the current social, political and economic climate has left many young Iranians with few choices. In hopes of avoiding a future of poverty, drugs, crime and/or violence, many are trying to emigrate. Few succeed, and even for those who do, success is marred by a constant state of longing and dislocation.
With all of this in mind, one might expect that the majority of young Iranians have become hopeless. Not so.
Despite all of these devastating realities, there remains an overall sense of optimism. Perhaps this seems irrational, but for the descendants of over 2,500 years of Persian civilization, defeat isn’t easily accepted. Furthermore, the increasing infighting between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad has given even more hope to the many young Iranians in the pro-democracy movement. The infighting between these leaders is more than an indication of their lack of popular support. It is a sign of their weakness and myopia, not to mention a golden opportunity for young reformers to swoop in.
It may happen during the next presidential election in mid-2013 or it may happen sooner, but whatever the case, sometime soon political power will land in the laps of young Iranians. When it does, change will follow. In the meantime, the children of the Islamic Revolution are still stirring, and as the old chaps fight among themselves, young women and men are setting the stage for a new day in Iranian politics.
Melody Moezzi is a writer, commentator, speaker, activist, author and attorney. She is also the Executive Director of the interfaith non-profit organization, 100 People of Faith.
This piece is part of the series ‘Youth, Civic Engagement and Democratic Processes.’
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