An 'Iranian Spring': How Iran's Youth Are Seeking Reform In A New Way

02/23/2015 12:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

There are two versions of Iran. One is the image of ideologically driven men and women chanting, "Death to America!" The other is a sea of protesting Iranians, expressing their anger against the Islamic regime. These two versions have coexisted for nearly two decades. Many in the West have hoped that the second group would one day revolt and rid themselves and the world of the Islamic regime.

But there is a third version of Iran that can upend this calculus.

This third Iran appeared last November in full force after a 30-year-old musician passed away of cancer. A few text messages on Viber, a mobile application that allows users to call and send free text messages to one another, drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets. The crowds gathered in dozens of cities, including the capital city of Tehran, where Morteza Pashaei, the musician, had passed away. The country had not seen such crowds since the 2009 uprising, when hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against what they thought was a fraudulent election.

Pashaei was neither political nor very famous until his death. His music was melancholic -- reminding many of realities of life in Iran -- and among a few that the regime had endorsed. He was a figure both young people and the regime had identified with. Pop music had been banned for decades until recent years when the Islamic regime allowed a few musicians to perform. A few hours after his death, Pashaei's songs echoed on every street where his fans gathered. Taking control of the streets in such large numbers is illegal in Iran; singing in public is banned and so is talking about love and yearning; women are not permitted to sing at all. The singing also defied traditional norms of mourning in a country where the dead are buried to the rhythm of the Quran. Caught by the spontaneity and scale of the gatherings, the regime stood by and watched.

With two-thirds of Iran's 78 million population born after the 1979 revolution, this force is predominantly young. Both men and women are increasingly educated and some 30 percent is connected to the Internet, according to the Statistical Center of Iran. More than half of university students have been women since 2000, and the number reached over 70 percent at several universities by 2014.

In Iran, women must cover their hair and bodies or will be lashed and jailed. The family law, modeled after the Islamic law, allows men to divorce their wives and keep the custody of children. Unmarried couples are not allowed to hang out together. Regime forces, known as morality police, constantly patrol the streets and humiliate young people over what they wear.

"Iran's youth are eager to play an assertive role but through peaceful behaviors that would force the regime to comply."

Yet this hardliner insistence that public life must reflect religion has turned the youth into the most political and defiant group. Through gradual resistance and defiance, women have managed to alter their Islamic dress into a more stylish one, and men and women mingle more freely in public. And yet, they showed no reaction when talks over Iran's nuclear program ended between Iran and Western countries without any results, leaving the country under tight economic sanctions. The youth population seeks more practical rights rather than change in grand political policies.

After the outpouring in November, pundits scrambled to analyze the emergence of this third Iran. One conservative figure called it a sign of the young generation's decadence. A municipal official said Pashaei had become an icon of resistance because of his battle with cancer. Sociologist Mohammadreza Jalaipour, offering the most comprehensive analysis, called it "a civil movement" that had been simmering beneath the surface and had culminated in its current form.

Eighteen years ago, the youth brought presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami to power, hoping that he would grant them more freedoms. They became the backbone of what became known as the reform movement, a major political movement that sought to create change. Hardliners confronted the reform movement fiercely. They feared that if they gave leeway to people's demands, however reasonable, they might start to challenge their authority more and more.

"The youth population seeks more practical rights rather than change in grand political policies."

The reform movement suffered many setbacks, but the worst crackdown came after the presidential election in 2009, when millions poured out on the streets, believing that the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had rigged the votes to deny the reform movement's candidate the presidency. Those protests snowballed and rocked the country for six months. Hardliners used extreme measures to end the uprising. Hundreds of people were jailed and tortured, and some 150 people were killed.

Many believed the violence created political nihilism among the youth. When the regime arrested prominent political leaders a year after the protests, there was no major reaction from their supporters. The regime tightened its grip over society with mass arrests and declared victory.

However, Iranian youth are pivotal to elections -- the barometer the regime relies on to show off its legitimacy to its opponents inside and outside the country. Leaderless and angry -- while most leaders of the reform movement lingered in prison -- voters flocked to the polls during the 2013 presidential race and overwhelmingly elected the most moderate candidate, Hassan Rohani. He had campaigned on a platform to create more political and social freedoms. The regime's approval of his presidency assured the nation that regime had grasped the message of the uprising in 2009.

"The mourning of Pashaei was an opportunity for people to send a message to the regime in a coded language."

The massive crowd that occupied the streets in November showed that the country's youth movement is alive and capable of attracting large swaths of people. Yet, it is reluctant to get involved in behaviors that can veer out of control. Memories of the violence in 2009 are still fresh in people's minds. Instability in Syria, Egypt and Libya since the so-called Arab Spring have confirmed notions that violence cannot pave the way for democracy. Iran's youth are eager to play an assertive role but through peaceful behaviors that would force the regime to comply.

"One must not confuse movements with revolts and revolution," wrote Jalaipour, the professor sociology, in his analysis of the event. "Movements that transform according to people's lifestyles cannot be crushed. These movements are part of Iran's civil society along with other groups, networks and parties."

This third version of Iran is the driver of change in Iran. The mourning of Pashaei was an opportunity for people to send a message to the regime in a coded language. The regime may not respond to these messages immediately, but it hears and understands them.

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