Generational tensions in Iran point to looming crisis

As frustration increases among Iran’s youth, it is only a matter of time before Iranian society sees an explosion.
Sunday 25/02/2018
University students run away from stones thrown by police during an anti-government protest inside Tehran University, last December.  (AP)
Hunger for change. University students run from stones thrown by police during an anti-government protest inside Tehran University, last December. (AP)

Can the ageing mullahs of Iran lead a predominately young country of more than 81 million people, the majority of whom are eager to live a more liberal lifestyle?

What do young Iranians know of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which their mullahs and leaders are keen to export to Arab and Islamic countries in the region?

What is their view of this outdated ideology, which is based on a complex combination of nationalism, political populism and Shia religious radicalism?

In a commentary published in Foreign Policy magazine in January, Dennis Ross argued that Iran’s policies, particularly its expansionism in the Middle East, had come with a heavy social cost.

The former US envoy to the Middle East and counsellor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy was referring to nationwide protests in Iran over corruption and economic mismanagement that flared up on December 28.

While Ross rightly points out that the demonstrations do not themselves indicate “the Islamic republic is on its last legs — far from it,” he notes that “…for a regime that prides itself on control and recalls well what brought Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi down, the protesters flocking to the streets cannot be a happy sight.”

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who famously forecast the “end of history,” gave an equally dire assessment of the mullah’s republic, saying generational tensions in Iran point to a looming crisis.

“In Iran there has been a social revolution going on beneath the surface,” Fukuyama said at the World Government Summit in Dubai. “There is a young population, well-educated women in particular, who do not correspond to the rural, conservative power structure that runs the country.”

Fukuyama’s assessment is solid. With deteriorating economic conditions, unique political concerns and a major social shift, Iran is looking increasingly unstable. While the conservative Iranian mullahs can attempt to resist all forms of progress, they cannot turn back the hands of time. The highly complex modern age cannot coexist, either in form or in content, with the obsolete revolution of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

“[Iran is] headed towards some kind of explosion and I’m not sure of the outcome but it is not a stable situation,” Fukuyama said.

Of the various factors highlighted by Fukuyama, Iran’s demographic landscape is the most important. The majority of Iranians were born after the Islamic Revolution and few cling to the stale ideology of their leaders.

Young Iranians, in particular, have witnessed a stunning information revolution over their lifetimes: from the launch of the internet to the development of artificial intelligence to the use of quantum information processing. They cannot be held by the conservative way of life Khomeini endorsed 40 years ago.

Iranian women, against all odds, have made important advances since 1979, confronting an array of social and legal barriers imposed by the mullahs. A 2017 Human Rights Watch report stated that more than 50% of Iranian university graduates are women compared to 28.6% in 1976.

Despite the improvement, women’s participation in the labour force is only 17%. This startling gap demonstrates the extent to which women face inequality, not just socially, but in terms of economic outcomes.

Iranian women are not giving up on their future or that of their country, however. They were among protesters in December and January shouting: “No Gaza. No Lebanon. I will die for Iran.”

The slogan is a searing indictment of the mullahs’ attempts to expand Iranian influence beyond their national borders, particularly to Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Ultimately, that strategy is a losing one.

Iran’s countdown to a social “explosion” began in 2009, when national police and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Basij paramilitary force initiated a violent crackdown on protests over presidential election results.

Today, as frustration and popular unrest increase among Iran’s youth, it is only a matter of time before Iranian society sees an explosion. It’s difficult to imagine that a ruthless theocracy like that of the mullahs might indefinitely prevail in a striving society so hungry for change.