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Home » Opinion | Iran’s Gen Z Is Still Waiting for the Revolution

Opinion | Iran’s Gen Z Is Still Waiting for the Revolution

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A young Iranian woman wore baggy jeans, a backpack slung over one shoulder and a black mask, presumably to protect her identity. Allowing her auburn hair to flow freely in contravention of the Islamic Republic’s mandatory hijab rules, she proceeded to spray-paint in Persian on a wall in the holy city of Mashhad, “Khamenei you’re next.”

Her stark warning for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei came in May just one day after the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash. And while undeniably dangerous, the act of defiance, recorded on video in Mr. Raisi’s hometown and widely circulated on social media, isn’t out of the ordinary these days in Iran, where a generation of youth is deeply disillusioned with the status quo and wants the geriatric clerical establishment ruling Iran gone.

Young Iranians’ discontent played a critical role in the recent elections to replace Mr. Raisi, when a majority of the nation rejected the nezam — the system — and boycotted the polls. According to Iran’s official count, just 40 percent of registered voters participated in the first round of voting on June 28, the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s 45-year history. That number went up in last week’s runoff to about 50 percent, though some suspect real turnout may be even lower. Elections in Iran are neither free nor fair, and videos from across the country showed empty polling stations. In the end, the so-called reformist Masoud Pezeshkian won over the hard-liner Saeed Jalili.

For millions of Iranians, there was no acceptable choice: Both candidates were approved by the Guardian Council, a 12-member vetting body, six of whom are handpicked by Mr. Khamenei. But the breadth of the boycott appears to have put the regime on the back foot. The supreme leader took longer than usual to deliver his customary message congratulating the people of Iran for voting. The fact that so many groups — dissidents, activists, bereaved families of slain protesters among them — joined in this act of civil disobedience signaled to the regime and to the world that they don’t want an Islamic republic.

The bleak turnout wasn’t unexpected. Soon after the election was announced, the hashtags #NoWayI’llVote and #ElectionCircus began circulating on X along with calls to sit out the vote. According to a survey conducted by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN) in June, of those Iranians who said they planned not to vote or were undecided, nearly 70 percent cited their “opposition to the overall system of the Islamic Republic” as their reason. Before the second round of voting on July 5, another hashtag, #TreacherousMinority, popped up criticizing those who planned to cast their ballot for Mr. Pezeshkian, who opposes the violence that has become synonymous with mandatory hijab enforcement and advocates closer ties to the West. Some equated the act of getting your index finger dipped in ink after voting with sticking a finger in protesters’ blood.

Many of those who said they planned to boycott the vote on social media belonged to Nasleh Zed, or Gen Z, a phrase that has only recently entered the Persian lexicon though about 60 percent of Iran’s nearly 90 million people are under 30. They are largely the first in Iran to grow up with illegal satellite dishes and censored internet reached through VPNs, giving them a window onto the free world. As they came of age with the same needs and wants as youth everywhere, Gen Z Iranians watched successive presidents vow to improve their lives as things only got worse, triggering a wave of mass protests and brutal crackdowns.

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