The Iran Protests and Demographics

By now, everyone should be aware of the anti-regime protests taking place in Iran.   The country is experiencing unrest not seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution that deposed the Shah and brought the current regime to power.  The “spark” that ignited this rebellion was the disputed presidential election, of course.  But the “tinder” that caused this fire to spread are Iran’s demographics.  As you can see from the charts below, Iran is primed for revolution.

We’ll start first with a flashback to the original 1979 revolution, the one in which young Islamic militants  shocked the world by holding 52 American diplomats hostage for over a year.  This is the event that most historians mark as the beginning of the global Islamist movement.   The reasons for the revolution are too complex to be discussed in a short blog post, but looking at Chart 1 it’s not hard to see why it was a success.

During the Islamic Revolution, 1979 American Baby Boomer student revolutionaries  in the 1960s used to say “Never trust anyone over 30,” and there is a reason for this.  A young person has nothing to lose and has the youthful audacity to believe in change (for better or worse).   But by the time a person reaches their 30s, they have a career, a spouse, a family, and a stake in the status quo.  As we age, we get more resistant to change because, at the end of the day, we have more to lose.  Why risk your livelihood for abstract ideals like “democracy” or “freedom”?

So, how do Iran’s demographics look today?  In a word, “revolutionary.”

Consider Chart 2: Iran’s population is absolutely dominated by the 15-34 age group.  This cohort includes everything from rebellious teenagers to idealistic college students to frustrated and unemployed 20- and 30-somethings — exactly the kind of people with the reckless abandon needed to launch a revolution. We have no real way to handicap the likelihood of success for Iran’s young revolutionaries today.  Their passion is impressive, but they are up against some truly nasty people who will do anything to stay in power.

The Tiananmen Square protests in China twenty years ago were inspirational to those watching, but in the end they accomplished very little.   The might of the Chinese state was too much for a ragtag band of students.   Still, given their sheer numbers today, the young Iranians have a fighting chance to un-do the Islamic revolution of their parents’ generation and replace it with a more liberal revolution of their own.

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