Last Updated: Thursday, 22 February 2018, 11:54 GMT

Iran: Youth-led protests attaining critical mass

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 18 June 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Iran: Youth-led protests attaining critical mass, 18 June 2009, available at: [accessed 22 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


A chain reaction of hope in Iran is fueling youth-led street protests that seem poised to beat back Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's power grab. Over 1 million demonstrators gathered for a Tehran rally on June 18, by far the largest anti-government crowd to assemble since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

When the protests began in the aftermath of the fraudulent June 12 presidential vote, many young people had a limited demand: count all the votes. But now, with the protest movement gaining momentum, and young people discovering that technology can set them free, many Iranians are starting to think big, envisioning a life and political system without religious control over society and authoritarian instruments of coercion. For now, the crowds on the street support the aggrieved presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. But that does not necessarily mean that Iran's young people follow Mousavi, or any other individual who wishes to preserve the Islamic Republic. Mousavi, for young people, may merely be a means toward a greater end.

The sixth day of massive street protests on June 18 kept the pressure up on Ahmadinejad and his chief backer, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The hardline forces that they command have tried every trick in their bag to bully Iranians into submission, striving to stifle the means of communication and making mass arrests. But all the old instruments of intimidation are failing them in the Twitter age. The only option left open to them would appear to be massive force, but it seems they are having trouble finding Revolutionary Guard units to carry out an order to shoot.

A route for compromise seems to be closed off for Ayatollah Khamenei, as during televised comments on June 17, he maintained his staunch support for Ahmadinejad, referring to him as the "elected" president.

A big reason that many units of the security forces are seemingly sitting on the sidelines is that Iran's clerical establishment is lining up against Ahmadinejad. For example, on June 18, an influential institution, the Association of Combatant Clergy, which has already issued a statement calling for the election results to be annulled and another vote held, announced that it would sponsor a pro-Mousavi rally on June 20.

An estimated two-thirds of Iran's population is under 30, and thus has no memory of the passion and the pain that gave birth to the Islamic Republic. All the post-revolutionary generation knows is the frustration of not being able to realize one's aspirations. This frustration – combined with the fear that Ahmadinejad, if he succeeds, will squelch expectations for decades to come, and thus render millions of lives meaningless – is what is driving hundreds of thousands of young people into the streets. A growing determination is taking hold among the young to topple Ahmadinejad.

But they may not stop there. Unverifiable evidence, i.e. statements relayed via Twitter, indicate that some protesters wish to do away with the Islamic Republic. The longer this political crisis goes on, it seems reasonable to expect that such sentiment will expand.

"I want more than just a new president, I want an end to this brutal regime," said one tweet purportedly sent by one Tehran protester.

Another tweet said the following: "Remember that Mousavi/[unsuccessful presidential candidate Mehdi] Karoubi is not our ideals. We just voted for change."

In many respects, the youth of Iran have been forced to live double lives, and they are tired of it.

Prior to the election, EurasiaNet visited the Islamic Republic for several weeks, getting an opportunity to observe first-hand the daily travails of young people. The existing system forces many of them to break the law in order to feel normal.

Where holding hands in public is punishable, the sight of a woman smoking is cause for arrest, and where being different – whether it is sexual preference, religion, musical taste or style of dress – is prosecuted, many young people are forced to live repressed existences. Behind closed doors, in private, young people's relief from controlling social pressures is palpable, but never complete.

Even in private, one can only half relax. Young people are constantly fearful of running into the morality police, whose agents roam the streets seeking real or perceived deviants. These enforcers of orthodoxy wait outside shopping malls, art galleries, parks, fast-food restaurants and cafes, stadiums, and even the book show on National Book Day. With their archaic modes of punishment, such as flogging, for showing affection in public, enjoying strange art or playing rock music, the morality police are much-feared zealots.

Despite high literacy rates – about 80 percent – and enrollment in secondary school in the 70 percent range, youth unemployment keeps growing. In recent years, over 1 million graduates have been entering the ranks of the unemployed annually. These young people want a future, and with each passing day it becomes increasingly apparent that if the existing government does not respond to their needs, they will try to take matters into their own hands and create one that does.

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