MERIP - Middle East Research and Information Project
January 22, 2018
Aghil Daghagheleh, Zakia Salime
On Friday, December 29, 2017, a protest suddenly broke out in the shrine city of Mashhad, one of Iran’s major urban centers located in the northeast of the country. Although evidence indicates that the protests were prompted by hardliners in order to undermine President Hassan Rouhani, they rapidly spread across the country and spun out of any one faction’s control. Most international mainstream media were quick to point out that these were the largest and most significant Iranian protests since the Green Movement, the youth-driven protests that emerged after the contested 2009 presidential election. The Green Movement, which was hailed as a new social movement harnessing widespread political dissatisfaction, was violently suppressed by hardliners working in tandem with formal and informal security forces. For the past two decades, Iran’s internal politics have been dominated by rivalry between hardliners (who control Iran’s non-elected political institutions and insist on the priority of religious authority) and reformists (who have won elections on platforms of democratic reform and accountability but have struggled to implement their policies). President Rouhani was elected with reformist support and a popular mandate to calm international tensions and improve the economy; the international nuclear deal was expected to achieve this, but the general population has felt little economic benefit. Popular frustrations have been building, but the hardliners seem to have assumed they could be harnessed to discredit Rouhani and reform. Instead, the protests revealed a widespread disaffection with all existing political factions. New slogans calling for the “death” of “the dictator” and for a “referendum” alternated with those in favor of the Pahlavi monarchist regime that ruled Iran before the 1979 revolution. This public enunciation of an all-or-nothing approach to political change in Iran is an unexpected development, and is indicative of a new level of rejectionist “blue” alienation, especially among Iranian youth.
Outside media immediately picked up on the protests, and highlighted the importance of economic factors namely poverty, inflation and unemployment, while emphasizing the leading role of impoverished, desperate Iranian youth in this new cycle of unrest. There is a lot to support these claims. Since 2005 the country’s currency has lost 75 percent of its value, unemployment hit twelve percent of the general population, and (according to the Statistical Center of Iran) more than one fifth of college graduates are unemployed. Many believe that state officials use their positions to dole out benefits to their relatives, granting them access to state resources. While most attribute these spoils to corruption, those who benefit from them speak of meritocracy and “good genes,” an expression that has entered the everyday lexicon of young Iranians, whether used sincerely by a scion of high-ranking official, or ironically by more critical voices. Yet neither poverty nor corruption is new. The economy has been struggling because internal mismanagement and malfeasance have been exacerbated by US-led sanctions. Though economic dissatisfactions may have been a major trigger of these protests, as some chants suggest, another aspect has remained underexplored in current accounts: the shifting sensibilities of a new generation of Iranians. While there were chants against rocketing prices of food and other necessities, many of the chants point to political grievances, and to a shift in the political sensibilities of young Iranians. Chants criticizing reformists and hardliners in the same stance betray a shift in the way young Iranians relate to the Islamic Republic. They signal fissures in the body politic, which for many decades espoused a reformist stance to fight the most conservative agents and policies. The most surprising aspect of these protests stems from an emerging populist trend articulated by middle-class Iranian youth, who are channeling both common and specifically generational frustrations into a romanticized and often racialized nationalist rhetoric.
A New, Blue Generation
The best way to understand the genealogy of these current protests is to start with the unexpected death and funeral of thirty year-old Iranian singer Morteza Pashaei, who died of cancer in November 2014. The news of his death drew thousands of young Iranians to the funeral procession in the streets of Tehran. For several days, hundreds of youngsters, mostly below the age of twenty-five, gathered across the country to hold vigils with candles and songs. Pashaei was not a well-known singer for most of those not within that demographic. Observers who wrote about the unanticipated procession admitted they neither knew him nor had heard his songs; the Iranian Sociological Association held a roundtable and invited leading Iranian sociologists to analyze the unrecognized popularity of a youth hero. The funeral was an early sign of the emergence of a new Iranian generation who felt little connection to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), or the reformist era of President Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005). Indeed, many were too young to have even experienced the 2009 Green Movement.
The melancholy songs of Pashaei represent the gloomy mood of a generation that feels it has got the blues. This “blue generation” feels cheated by a corrupt autocracy and has little faith in existing political ideologies. The main distinguishing feature of their political sensibility is the lack of any form of emotional attachment or sense of belonging to the political institutions or culture of post-revolutionary Iran. The blue generation inscribes itself in the short temporality of the last ten to fifteen years, therefore its experience of post revolutionary Iran has been of rampant corruption, lack of social freedoms, government inefficiency, religious tyranny, and curtailment of basic individual rights. They have little evidence or experience of the spirituality, public morality, sacrifice, social justice, or even national sovereignty that was part of the public culture of the early years of the Islamic Revolution, the post-revolutionary period of state and national redevelopment, or the initial reform period. This generation perceives a government that cancels music events, enforces dress codes, criminalizes relationships between young men and women, and bans cultural and recreational activities. They identify the state as dysfunctional, corrupt, and incapable of running the country. This image is reinforced by daily news about water shortages, environmental degradation, pollution, and other social ills including addiction, child homelessness, street violence, and deteriorating public services. The young men and women who are now taking to the streets in small and large cities have grown tired of a government that shows more concerns with what they wear than with providing economic opportunities or respecting basic freedoms and rights. The current protests can best be understood as the emergence of a generation whose members are totally alienated from a political regime they view as superstitious, regressive and backward.
The Blue Generation Online
Previous generations have been frustrated with the state and the lack of available options for personal or national future development. But when the regime was smashing any possibility of public life for most adult factions of Iranian society, this new generation, protected by its youth, was discovering the online world of social networks. These include Telegram, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; Telegram, for instance, is an online messenger that was founded in Russia, has moved its team from country to country (Germany, Dubai), and recruits thirty percent of its users from Iran. These social media networks have provided a platform for interaction and conversation among members of the blue generation. They find comfort in each other’s posts, construct oppositional identities, and respond to state control through forming a hybrid of online-offline life and activities. The blue generation has developed its subjectivity in a hidden underskin world, a second life that avoids hegemonic political discourse and state control over the means of communication. But young people have also used these online platforms to organize public social gathering in the real world. For instance, in 2011, young men and women set a time on Facebook for a water fight at the Garden of Water and Fire, a park in Tehran. Hundreds came to the park with colorful plastic water guns, and photographed each other in a general water fight. But a few minutes later, scores were arrested by the police for holding a “mix-gendered party.” In a similar event, the police arrested dozens of young men and women in the Cyrus mall in Tehran when thousands of high school students joined a social gathering organized online in celebration of the end of the school year. Rallies in celebration of Cyrus Day, an invented tradition and unofficial holiday organized online in the last few years, as well as other social events that exemplify the hybrid online-offline life that mark the modes of sociability and political subjectivities of this new generation. It is not clear to what extent these young people recognize that moving between their virtual and material works can entail additional risks. These hybrid online-offline public events mark the privileged mode of sociability of this new generation. Their shared “politics of fun”  shows a defiance of the system of sex and gender segregation and a subversion of the public morality imposed by the Islamic Republic, although it is not clear to what extent these young people recognize that moving between their virtual and material works can entail additional risks.
Social media have also become an effective forum for debating the weaknesses of the system, and for building an alternative discourse to state Shi’ism. Young men and women share and comment on posts and statements made by clerics who attribute earthquakes to God’s anger toward women who do not cover their hair, or those claiming that the language of heaven is Arabic and not Persian. Video-sharing gives birth to long streams of comments about irrationality, backwardness and superstition, all becoming iconic of the Iranian brand of Shiism, according to this generation. Use of social media for joke sharing and political sarcasm is not unique to young people or the blue generation. But in the absence of an alternative to the state religious discourse, social media is the platform through which the blue generation is constructing a deep nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary Pahlavi era, portraying it as an apex of modernization, freedom, and progress that was destroyed by the “great mistake” of their “revolutionary” parents. Images reflecting the elite social freedoms that these young people are eager to recover, including unveiled women, nightclubs, and dancing parties, circulate online as icons of shared Iranian modernity and progress during the Pahlavi era. It is not therefore surprising to hear these young protesters chanting “death to the dictator,” while simultaneously chanting in support of the Shah and his deposed son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This nostalgia for a mythologized monarchical-authoritarian order betrays a naively conservative trend in the political imagination of a new generation. In contradiction to the historical record, they view top-down “modernization” as “freedom,” monarchical rule as “democracy,” and “rights” as what are due to a dominant majority of “Aryan” citizens.
What Becomes of Nationalism?
The blue generation’s worldview is entangled with a grassroots brand of nationalism that has been on the rise for a decade. The exhaustion of sponsored religious ideology that constructs Iran as a Shia state pushed young people to look for alternatives in prerevolutionary Iranian nationalist discourse. This generation embraces a racialized definition of the nation, relying on a Persian version of Orientalism that sees Iran as a remnant of Aryan dynasties that used to control large parts of the world before their defeat by Muslim Arabs. This racialized imaginary of the ancient nation was the main doctrine of the Pahlavi’s government. For instance, in 1976 the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi changed the origin of Iran’s calendar from the Solar Hijri, that begins with the migration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, to the Imperial Calendar that begins with the reign of Cyrus the Great (600–530 BC). This deeply nostalgic and racialized construction of the nation went into hibernation (except in pockets of the exile diaspora) with the rise of the Islamic Republic, that replaced it with a religious construct of an Islamic Shi’a-Persian state.
With the exhaustion of Shi’ism as a state ideology and the frustration of post-revolutionary national hopes, disappointed and often desperate young people began to appropriate an Aryan construction of the nation as a civilizational trope. They perceive both Arabs and Islam as the source of deterioration of Iran’s glorious past, and seek to build symbolic borders against these others in order to defend a deteriorating national identity. The government itself has played a role in revitalizing these racialized political antagonisms. To gain support in its geopolitical rivalries with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, the government started to fuel anti-Arab sentiments using state-controlled media to mobilize Iranians who are either indifferent about or opposed to Iran’s geopolitical involvement in the Arab region. This strategy is now backfiring. Chants such as “we are Aryans, not Arabs,” and “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran” reflect the growing popularity of this racialized nationalism as an expression of general dissatisfaction, without being tied to any specific policy program or available political alternative.
These slogans, especially popular with the disappointed blue generation, do not necessarily indicate a coherent ideology or incipient social movement. Rather, they are indicative of resentment with the status quo and the failure of alternatives represented by the established opposition. While this rejectionist perspective is becoming popular among other segments of society, the core of the current protests is the new generation, who have no symbolic national historical experiences they can claim as their own. Their alienation is sharper than previous generations, while their expectations have been built on the accessibility of social media and awareness of global trends. Their chanted demands go further than those of other generations, who limited themselves to reform, and could either form the building blocks of a radical movement or become a bedrock for a dangerous populism.
The recent protests in Iran were not part of a formulated organized movement. They can best be understood as the unfocused outcry of a disaffected youth whose lack of ideology, ahistorical worldview, and frustrated sense of entitlement may as easily lend itself to cynical manipulation as become a basis for national renewal.
 Bayat, Asef, “Islamism and the Politics of Fun, Public Culture 19/3 (2007), 433-459.
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