On 9 August, two separate small incidents in Iran drew the attention of the Western media. The arrest of dozens of male and female teenagers at a pool party in Isfahan coincided with the arrest of four boys and two girls for teaching Zumba in Shahroud, north-east Iran. For readers in the West, such incidents are curiosities, a window into a different world. But for the leadership in Tehran, such seemingly minor incidents are a sign of a threat bubbling under the surface.
Iran’s youth, some of the most restive and most politically active in the region, represent the greatest long-term threat for the theocratic regime in Tehran. According to the United States Institute of Peace, over 60% of Iran’s 80 million people are under 30 years old. Successive governments have failed to address the socio-economic problems facing young people, such as high unemployment, meagre opportunities and strict social codes. Sanctions have played their role in restricting economic growth, but despite them young Iranians are still better educated and more worldly than any previous generation. Social media has played a large part in this development, especially Telegram and Instagram, the eighth most visited site in Iran.
If the regime does not change its approach and offer some hope to this critical population bloc, Iran’s political landscape will have no choice but to change its political, economic and social to accommodate them. In most scenarios, this would mean a change in regime.
Plainly, the signs of Western cultural influence worry the regime. At the pool party, young “half naked” boys and girls mixed socially. Alcohol, usually banned in Iran, flowed freely. Such mixing is forbidden by the strict Islamic laws of Iran, where contact between the sexes is kept to a minimum for fear of “corrupting” people’s morals. In Shahroud, the Zumba teachers, arrested for teaching “western” dance moves and posting them on social media, were condemned by the local Revolutionary Guards Commander for seeking “to change lifestyles”.
Culturally, few share the values of their religious leaders. Instead, with the help of social media, many align their principles more closely with the liberal, secular approach of the West. While this liberal stance has long been common in Iran, the concern for the mullahs is that pro-Western attitudes are beginning to spread to the regions, traditionally a support base for conservative forces.
These are not the first signs of culture clash between the old and the young. In 2014, six Iranian were sentenced to 91 lashes and a prison term for dancing along to Pharrell William’s song ‘Happy’. Since earlier this year the phrase “bad hijab” has been used to mock the offence of women failing to cover their hair properly, and there has been an increase in recent years of the number of women rebelling against what they consider to be an archaic rule.
The regime has reacted to these small rebellions by cracking down on minor transgressions increasingly harshly. In May 2016 Iran arrested eight people in a crackdown against women who “promote immoral and un-Islamic culture and promiscuity” by appearing on Instagram without wearing the mandatory hijab, in what was revealed as a two-year sting operation. The previous year, the Iranian regime deployed religious police to monitor patrons at the ski slopes in the Alborz mountains to ensure that men and women were not committing “immoral offenses” and that they remained separate while skiing.
As Iran’s population continues to grow – it will likely reach 100 million by 2050 – the regime will have to alter its priorities. This may mean changing its foreign policy in order to reduce sanctions and therefore spur economic growth; a new world-view may be adopted to accommodate young Iranians that want to be part of the international community.
For now, it is difficult to see the current regime doing any of these things. More likely is the continued repression and official crack-down on those seeking change. This does not bode well for Iran’s future or for that of the regime.