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Why is Iran arresting its protesting youths?

- January 10, 2018
University students attend an anti-government protest at Tehran University in Tehran on Dec. 30. (Via AP)

Authorities in Iran are rounding up protesters — and nearly all of them are young adults with degrees. Of all the facts and figures trickling out of the country this past week, one number stood out: According to Iran’s Interior Ministry, more than 90 percent of those detained so far have an average age under 25.

Members of the most educated generation in Iran’s history — more than 70 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are enrolled in some form of higher education, triple the rate from just 10 years ago — they are also its least employed. Among young Iranians, who make up half the country’s population, 40 percent are without work or steady income.

Conventional wisdom holds that Iran’s large and restless youth population poses an inescapable and mortal threat to the Islamic system. While it’s still too early to know definitively, these latest protests introduce the possibility that variation across post-revolutionary cohorts, and in particular improved rates of access to higher education, offers a more significant predictor for contentious politics than the long-anticipated — but never realized — reckoning between Iran’s “youth bulge” and the revolution’s aging founders.

The grandchildren of Iran’s revolution are protesting not from want of opportunity but because of its abundance. This generation is the first to have full access to higher education, but refuses to be — as their predecessors were — the last to get a job.

As recently as 2006, fewer than half of all 14- to 17-year-olds were on track to graduate from high school on time, if at all, and no more than a third of those living in rural areas. More than half of these same students quit school after their first year of high school. Facing long odds in the academic marketplace, the children who came of age during or just after the war with Iraq and who were now raising families of their own, chose to take their chances in the labor force than against the high-stakes entrance exam for college, where acceptance rates hovered around 10 to 15 percent.

Those who stuck with school and completed their studies typically found themselves trapped in limbo. Young, overqualified and underemployed, most toiled away at jobs unrelated to their degrees. More likely to live at home with their parents than to take to the streets to protest the price of eggs, they kept their faith — if not in the system of the Islamic Republic, then in the earthly salvation promised by the pursuit of education and the university degree. Despite the odds, they abided.

Circumstances changed with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Determined to secure his populist bona fides, his administration fueled the explosion of distance-learning and part-time universities, resulting in a threefold increase in capacity between 2005 and 2011, from just over 383,000 available spots to 1.1 million. Many of these new entry points to university education benefited the small-town poor who constituted Ahmadinejad’s base — and who are now leading the protests.

If a university degree had been a distant aspiration for the children of the revolution’s third and fourth generations, then by the end of Ahmadinejad’s time in office it had become an obligation, a requisite for employment and marriage that quickly proved to be more of a burden than a way to get ahead.

Access proved to be unbearable, and what is at stake now are the changing terms of the transition to adulthood, the implicit rules of the game that formed the contract between state and society: Go to school, get a degree, wait your turn. The emerging profiles of protesters and testimonies from the ground present compelling evidence that Iran’s youngest citizens are refusing to play along.

Four years after his election to the presidency, the fragmentation of Hassan Rouhani’s youth coalition complicates the growing consensus idea that these protests are driven primarily by poverty and anger at the mismanagement of the economy. While older cohorts of Iran’s post-revolutionary youth sit this one out, members of its rising “fifth generation,” Iranians old enough to have voted for Rouhani but too young to have participated in the Green Movement, are out in the squares, taking on the authorities on a scale not seen since 2009.

There is a sense that there is something different about this generation, which can be felt in the reporting from Iran. “It’s not our crowd this time around,” a young Iranian who was active in the Green Movement said. “We don’t share the same grievances. We don’t necessarily feel good about them either.” His bewilderment echoes the caution I would occasionally hear from interviews during my fieldwork in Iran. “I would not dare mess with them,” a young professional and a member of the fourth-generation said of her younger peers. “There’s something about them. They won’t take grief from anyone.”

This is a hardened bunch. Ninety percent were under 17 when the Green Movement happened, and saw firsthand the suppression of the crowds. As children, they attended to their older cousins and siblings, bringing them snacks and cups of tea, while the latter anxiously prepared for the university entrance exam in marathon study sessions. They were present at their graduations — as well as disappointments, as they saw how their relatives slogged in fields unrelated to their degrees.

It’s not surprising that this generation is unwilling to accept their current circumstances. They know that things are unlikely to get better with a college degree, and that no amount of education will end the corruption of feckless elites. Their actions are already having an effect, albeit at unspeakable cost: On Monday, Rouhani said that the political system cannot “force a [particular] lifestyle on the future generations.”

“The problem,” he said, “is that we want two generations after us to live the way we like them to.”

That these emerging Iranians are willing to take direct action against their government doesn’t mean that they want to burn it all down. As I’ve noted elsewhere, citizens take to the streets to preserve the system, to make it work for them and not against them. Protests have a long and proud pedigree in Iran, and should, for now, be seen as politics by other means, a way to avoid the change that comes by any means necessary.

Shervin Malekzadeh is a visiting professor at Williams College.