The Future of Iran and the Dissent of Generation Z

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Claudia Groeling

This essay is part of the MEPC’s Emerging Voices series, highlighting scholarship from rising academics focused on Middle Eastern studies. Author Claudia Groeling is an undergraduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University pursuing her B.A. in International Affairs with a concentration in Middle East Studies and a minor in Arabic.


Facing waves of armed public dissent and anger, the Republic of Iran is in a struggle for its integrity and legitimacy. The death of Mahsa Amini, who was killed at the hands of the Iranian morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly, served as the catalyst event among young Iranians who took to the streets, demanding justice and decrying the regime. Despite widespread government suppression of this movement through the use of media bans, executions, and mass imprisonment of protestors, Generation Z (Gen Z) has refused to back down for the last four months; they are insisting on political rights for those who have suffered at the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In comparison to the Green Movement in 2009, Gen Zers have the technological and educational assets necessary to progress this revolutionary moment and make sustainable historical change.


While Generation Z has demonstrated fearless dissent despite the potential consequences of their growing opposition, this is not the first time that Iranian youth has expressed opposition against the clerical government. When the Green Movement erupted in 2009 in response to suspected fraud after presidential elections, Iranians, particularly Millennials, used social media to circulate information about the government crackdown. The state responded by ratifying a computer crimes law, criminalizing a number of online activities. Ultimately, if the Iranian government deemed content online as “obscene,” those who published, saved, or sent the material could face a range of penalties, including execution. The centralization of infrastructure technology and censorship also grew exponentially. In 2010, the movement ended as the government’s reactions to protests grew harsher and more brutal. Authorities executed over 115 people without providing an explanation and even banned green objects in universities.


Iran’s Gen Zers have seen greater success in their attempts to protest oppression thanks to the era of information and widespread access to social media and technology. Fewer than 1 million Iranians had smartphones 13 years ago; now, more than 48 million do. The variety of encrypted messaging options and anti-filtering tools has allowed Gen Zers to spread their message more effectively than the Millennials of the Green Movement. Access to technology has increased accountability and has stimulated mass mobilization. 


Young Iranians are also more frustrated than ever with the policies and decisions of their government. They’ve grown up knowing economic hardship and limited opportunities resulting from economic sanctions put in place to punish the government’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Poor economic conditions and political instability are deeply connected, and typically, when a country experiences long term economic downfall, the government is more likely to collapse due to public unrest. Iran’s inflation rate exceeded 50% in 2022, and the middle and lower class suffered the most, deepening public distrust in the Republic’s decisions. Economic frustration seems to have made social suppression less tolerable. This is evident among young girls who are removing their hijabs in public settings, cutting their hair, burning their headscarves, and among both men and women who are chanting for the fall of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 


Protests today have different ideological objectives compared to the Green Movement. The Millennial protests in 2009 were not targeted to dismantle the ruling regime, and their aim was not for an immediate and complete overthrow of Iran’s government and political structure. The Green Movement’s demands stayed in the realm of the existing political system. It was a civil rights movement that encompassed a sense of hope that fair elections would lead to a freer Iran. However, in today’s protests there is a sense of urgency for change that is stemming from fury and desperation. The current demands of this generation and calls for the overthrow of the Republic are rooted in an intense opposition to the government’s totalitarian tactics, a sight unseen in past Iranian protests. This loss of hope in clerical rule poses a particularly dangerous development for the Iranian Republic. 


A regime that has continued to enable its people to attain an education and that has experienced an intense growth in technology is still attempting to control what they can wear, restricting the websites they can use, and brutalizing its citizens but these policies and restrictions are not sustainable for a modernizing society. The literacy rate and education spending in Iran have continued to increase since 2009, and these rates are currently at their height. When education rates are high, citizens are more likely to politically engage in a society, demand more rights, and hold their government accountable. Iran has continued to experience the expansion of education, the effects of globalization, and the growth of technology since 2009 with the arguably unrealistic expectation that young Iranians will remain in compliance with policies that infringe on their beliefs. 

Although the Iranian government is not on the verge of collapse, it may be on the verge of fundamental change. However, it is one thing to be against something, and another thing to provide a clear and effective alternative for the current government in power. If the current protesters are going to achieve their goals, it is essential that they have a clear political alternative with a vision for effective leadership, something that the Green Movement lacked but that the 1979 Revolution proposed. Generation Z must unify not only on the streets and through social media but with clear leadership at its front.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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