From the Editor

Iran, laboratory of the Middle East?

Abbas Amanat, a Yale professor of history, has written two books about Shi'ism and religious movements in Iran and edited two about apocalyptic and messianic beliefs. Yet when he talks about the post-election upheaval in his native country, he stresses class. The huge demonstrations in city streets, the young men running from security forces, the young women holding placards that read, "Where is my vote?" -- all this, he says, was the manifestation of an extraordinary demographic shift.

Iran today, Amanat explains, has "a new middle class." The old middle class was essentially lost to the country as large numbers of Iranians emigrated during and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. But the rise of the new one was swift. Early on, he says, "parts of the working class and the lower middle class from the smaller cities in Iran moved to the bigger cities, especially the younger generation. For better or for worse, the rural areas were emptied out." And the population doubled -- from around 35 million in 1979 to more than 70 million today. As a result, whereas half of Iranians lived in large cities at the time of the revolution, now the nation is 80 percent urban or semi-urban.

Meanwhile, Iran has seen a surge in higher education. Not only the biggest cities but also middle-sized towns have at least one campus or university, Amanat says. Young Iranians are "better educated, obviously they're all very technologically savvy, and they want access to the outside world" -- as the world has witnessed, via the flood of photos, videos, and tweets.

And so, most crucially: "This is a generation which no longer can be controlled or fooled with the old slogans and rhetoric or conspiracy theories about Western meddling in the current crisis." The assertive, confident young women, especially -- out on the streets, taking risks -- constitute a marked change from the previous generation, and indeed from most Middle Eastern societies. Technology, again, has helped: you cannot keep women isolated from society if they can use the Internet and send text messages.

As this magazine goes to press, it is mid-June, and the regime's crackdown on the protesters continues. Amanat is reluctant to make short-term predictions. But he feels there is room for optimism about the long term. Whether the regime compromises with the new middle class or succeeds for now in suppressing it, "already there has been damage -- to the moral authority of the state, of the Supreme Leader, to the legitimacy of the government." This may be a turning point.

Moreover, Amanat argues, "in a sense, Iran is like a laboratory for what has happened to the Middle East over the past 30 years. The Islamic Revolution seemed to prefigure the whole regional movement toward Islamic awareness and Islamic extremism. And now we see, 30 years later, a generation which is more interested in a stable, balanced, perhaps secular society. I'm not saying that tomorrow is going to see the end of the Taliban or al Qaeda. But if this movement succeeds, this is a very important shift of paradigm."

Until the crisis resolves, Amanat sits glued to his computer, searching for every scrap of information coming out of Iran, with both hope and fear. For him, as for the millions of other expatriate Iranians around the world, "it is a very, very exciting and extremely distressing time. There isn't much one can do. For people like myself it is a very difficult moment -- for my family, for my wife, for all of us."  

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