Friends of Europe’s Iran in Focus series aims to identify new approaches to diplomatic relations with Iran by establishing an understanding of the domestic political context and recent developments in international relations that jointly underpin the country’s political decision-making.
By taking a wider perspective on security and focusing on the role of women, the state of civil society and the human rights situation in the country, the series brings a fresh and informed perspective on diplomatic engagement that empowers domestic activism.
Amplifying a varied range of voices, these think pieces examine the challenges and opportunities of civic movements and organisations in Iran. Priorities include women’s rights and political participation, freedom of speech and of the media, the humanitarian considerations of international sanctions, and the role of international actors in Iran.
Our articles and the Iran in Focus series as a whole will engage with these overlapping themes, promote new and diverse opinions, and provide a coherent and progressive reconfiguration of diplomatic relations with Iran, including concrete conclusions and recommendations, based on strategic thinking and mutual interests.
An addendum by the author was added to this article on 28 June 2022, following additional input from an Iranian researcher on the topic of this article.
Although slightly older than those of neighbouring states, Iran’s population is rather young with a median age of 32 as of 2020. In 1995, Iran’s median age was 18.6 and increased rapidly over the last seven years. While factors like the high reception of refugees and a decreasing birth rate influence this increase, an important contributing aspect is the high rate of emigration that results from the mismatch regarding values, income and living conditions between Iran’s old political elite and its youth.
The Iranian government did not have the best image among the population already before President Ebrahim Raisi was elected in June last year. Youth especially put a lot of hope in Hassan Rouhani, Raisi’s predecessor, but they felt that he did not live up to his promises. Meanwhile, the reinstated sanctions after Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal left many in a state of frustration and political disenchantment.
Less than half of Iran’s registered voters cast their ballot in 2021, in large part to express aversion to the regime. Corruption and the wide age gap between the leaders and those they are supposed to represent have caused discontent for years, and the population’s perception has not improved since Raisi took power.
In 2021, around 3.5mn young people were enrolled in university
On top of that, Iran’s population faces several domestic issues. The weak economy and global isolation, resulting from the far-reaching sanctions imposed on Iran, coupled with droughts and poor water management, high (absolute) poverty and unemployment rates, as well as increasing crime rates, led to protests that mobilised large amounts of people in the country of 85mn inhabitants.
Two worlds are clashing in Iran: those who have or are close to power versus those who do not have connections to power. Wealthy versus economically struggling. Distance from versus rapprochement with the West. Strong ideological influences on domestic and foreign policy versus a clearer separation of religion and the state. And, for a large part, old versus young.
The way in which Raisi’s ideological approach to politics impacts Iran’s younger population becomes especially evident when looking at universities. This part of society is highly educated, particularly in urban areas and compared to neighbouring states. In 2021, around 3.5mn young people were enrolled in university. However, this number could now decrease.
Iran has failed to adapt to global economic and domestic social changes
Iran is currently in its so-called ‘third cultural revolution’, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Professors and students are systematically removed and expelled if they obstruct the Islamization of universities, as outlined in the Document of Islamic University adopted in 2013 and now implemented by Raisi’s regime. At the same time, a newly established quota system ensures that most university spots are reserved for those with close ties to trusted regime followers. By appointing ministers who share the same ideology, Raisi ensures that the Islamization project is enforced by the entire regime. Some of these ministers are former members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a powerful paramilitary organisation.
For students who have obtained a place at university, there are insufficient job opportunities that match their level of education. Iran has failed to adapt to global economic and domestic social changes. According to the Middle East Institute, more than 2mn students left school in 2020. With these current policies, not only is the quality of education at stake, but Iran risks increasing the emigration of professors and students that do not condone the Islamization of universities, and losing the highly educated people that it has already invested in. Young people have and continue to search for creative ways to make the best out of the economically difficult situation but feel that the country stagnates.
Additionally, there is the aspect of gender. In recent years, more and more women attend university. Currently, more than 60% of the students at the University of Isfahan are female – after graduation, however, women are often encouraged to stay at home instead of entering the workforce.
What will actually change life for the better, however, is a recovering and adapting economy and the decreasing Islamization of education
But Iran’s (female) youth has access to role models other than those put forward by old, male politicians. Social media has become a defining medium for young generations just as everywhere else in the world. Its spillover effects have been and are multifaceted: less traditional clothing, easier and anonymous criticism, and the spread of news from around the world. Given the critical economic and political situation, as well as the information that is still accessible online, Iran is witnessing a decline in marriages and childbirth, an increase in divorces and a rise in postponed marriages until couples find better jobs outside of the country. Social media thereby holds great power in prompting people to question what they have long been told – but it can also portray a false reality.
RichKidsofTehran (RKOT), an Instagram page with more than 510k followers, celebrates the luxurious lifestyle of young, rich Iranians. Excessive consumption, alcohol and naked skin: the page portrays the opposite of reality for most Iranian citizens and of what is preached by the government. A 2021 study by Ehsan Shahghasemi, Assistant Professor at the University of Tehran, concluded that what seems like a small revolution is really more of the opposite. Wealth most often comes with close ties to the regime and pages like RKOT present a distraction from actual living conditions, creating a dreamlike public narrative of what Iran could be like for young people.
What will actually change life for the better, however, is a recovering and adapting economy and the decreasing Islamization of education. Combined, both would lead to highly educated people whose knowledge can be actively used for progress. The heavy sanctions currently imposed on Iran of course limit economic change. A renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) poses the chance to change that – if all parties involved can find an agreement. Raisi’s regime needs to realise that their reality is not only different from the one of the majority of Iran’s population but that their situation over the long-term will only improve if the regime changes its vision for Iran’s future.
It is important to highlight that not all of the aforementioned trends are new. After the Iran-Iraq War, the government adopted non-liberal policies and it can be argued that every leader and government thereafter followed the same path, just in different paces. An Iranian researcher therefore raised the question: are leaders really important? The described disenchantment with politics – a process that is not exclusive to the Iranian youth – is the result of many people answering this question with a “no”.
Slow or stagnant change over the long term is also caused by some political figures, and consequently their ideas, maintaining power for decades. An example is Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current supreme leader. Taking the previously mentioned aspect of gender, for example: although women make up a large part of Iranian students in universities, the country is far from reaching gender equality. Khamenei himself believes in the country’s widespread notion of gender segregation and contends that gender equality as aspired by Western states harms the societal role of women. His example shows that although elected presidents might have different visions for Iran, decade-long processes and structural issues limit the possibilities for change.
This does not mean that no improvements in Iran have been made in recent decades. Data gathered by UN Women in 2021 shows a decline in women being married before the age of 18, fewer pregnancies among women aged between 15 and 19, as well as improved healthcare, compared to 2011. In 2016, the share of women in leadership positions was 17.3%, more than five times higher than in 1976. In the same time frame, the rate of girls that were deprived of education decreased from 38.6% to 3%.
Without more drastic structural changes, even a change in approach by Raisi will most likely not lead to any substantial long-term improvements for Iran’s youth
On the other hand, domestic violence, child marriage, abuse of women political prisoners and the general lack of equal rights for women are long-existing problems listed by the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Representation in both the government and other leadership positions remains problematic.
It should be reinforced that there is a necessity for Raisi’s regime to realise the differences between their reality and the one of the majority of Iran’s citizens, especially regarding the current JCPOA negotiations. Without more drastic structural changes, even a change in approach by Raisi will most likely not lead to any substantial long-term improvements for Iran’s youth. The struggle lies in the fact that change from within the government is unlikely or slow and almost impossible from the outside. Activists, especially women activists, risk imprisonment for fighting for their rights and structural changes.
Addressing and changing these and other domestic issues, particularly those of an economic nature – instead of concentrating on military efforts – is a critical first step for progress in both the economic situation on a national level and the living conditions for the Iranian society. The international community must ensure that the improvement of human rights and structural issues is part of every deal with Iran.