Iran’s youth face growing disillusionment

They slice through traffic on their motorbikes, racing each other at breakneck speed with one hand holding a cellphone. They listen to heavy metal, read Günter Grass and admire Tom Cruise. They don’t go to the mosque the way their parents did and they have given up on politics.

A third of Iran’s 65-million people are aged between 15 and 30, struggling to find jobs, queuing for visas, and frustrated with the theocracy they have inherited.

As Iran this month marks the 25th anniversary of the revolution that toppled a monarchy and delivered clerical rule, members of the ‘third generation” won’t be celebrating an event that they don’t even remember.

‘It was a futile revolution,” says Sohrab, who is as young as the Islamic Republic. ‘It brought nothing but harm for the people.”

He speaks amid the roar of traffic and choking pollution in the working-class district of Shoosh in south Tehran, a place where the revolution enjoyed enthusiastic support in 1979.

Now Sohrab and his friends blame the clergy for Iran’s troubles. ‘You cannot accuse anyone else,” he says. ‘The revolution was in their hands, they made it happen. They were responsible. They started with a slogan of Islam, but they betrayed Islam.”

He complains about the social restrictions that make having a girlfriend a clandestine project; the risks of speaking out publicly against the theocracy; the inflation that eats away at his wages; corruption; and his country’s pariah status. ‘Ask me what doesn’t bother me,” he says.

Sohrab worries about friends who have turned to drugs. More than a million young Iranians are addicts, and hundreds of thousands of young men are in jail for drug offences.

With the clergy so deeply identified with politics, young people are turning away from religion, he says. ‘After all this, do you expect us to go to mosque and listen to them?”

Like his peers, he wears his hair long and slicked back with gel. He has a ‘hidden friendship” with a girl. ‘People have learned to do everything they want in society behind closed doors,” he says. ‘We are human beings. It’s natural.”

Although he failed to secure a coveted place at university, he says he is lucky, because he works for his father’s small transport business. His friends are scraping by and desperately seeking decent jobs.

At Tehran University, where student unrest in the 1970s helped force the Shah from power, Islamic militancy lost its appeal long ago.

‘The ideas of that time are now outdated,” says Hooshang, an electrical engineering student.

‘Politically, we can’t speak out. If we speak freely, they’ll compile a file on us.”

Some students who have dared to speak out have been imprisoned or summoned to court. One of them, Ahmad Batebi, appeared in a dramatic photograph on the cover of The Economist in 1999, holding up the bloodied T-shirt of a classmate beaten by vigilantes. Batebi was convicted of endangering national security, and remains behind bars.

Apart from student leaders and a few young journalists, most Iranians are tuning out of politics. They are focusing on finding a job or an emigration visa, or the next heroin fix.

Unable to contain the vast youth population, the Iranian establishment has been forced to grant a limited degree of social freedom, allowing couples to hold hands on the street, spicing up programming on state TV and permitting concerts and billiard halls.

Journalists say the leadership hopes to follow China’s example, easing social and economic restrictions while holding on firmly to power.

After Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called on families to produce children for the defence of Islam and the revolution.

But instead of being disciples of the cause, the baby-boom generation now coming of age poses a daunting challenge to the survival of his theocracy. —

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