In the summer of 1999, Tehran was rocked by students demonstrating for reform and democracy. Although students had been calling for the reform of the theocratic system for years, it was a dawn raid by Islamist vigilantes on a student dormitory and a reformist paper that sparked the protest. One of thousands who protested was Ahmad Batebi, who was photographed holding aloft a T-shirt stained with the blood of a fellow protester. It was photographed by Jamshid Bayrami working for Iranian Jame’e Daily Newspaper (since shut down).
The photograph was carried by many newspapers around the world, including Iranian ones. Most famously, it appeared on the cover of The Economist on July 17th 1999, and gained the international attention. With his long hair and bandana, Batebi — whom the New York Times later called Iran’s Johnny Depp — embodied the new spirit of defiance in Iran. The publicity did Batebi no good. After the government had cracked down the protests, he was arrested; Batebi did not know of the picture’s existence until he was dragged to court.
There, Batebi was shown that dramatic Economist issue, and was told: “With this, you have signed your death warrant.” They tortured him to betray his fellow students, and to say on television that the blood on that T-shirt was only red paint. When he refused, Batebi was sentenced to death. But, ironically, Batebi was saved by the same photograph that condemned him — unlike death penalties of another group of student leaders which were quietly carried out, Batebi’s conviction was made internationally famous by the notoriety the photograph created. After a global outcry, his sentence was commuted to 15 years in jail. In 2005, while on a medical release, he escaped, and now lives in US.
Last year, Iranian government again survived a popular uprising predominantly orchestrated by students and young people. Youth involvement in politics and anti-clericalism is not surprising for two reasons. One, in a 2000 study by a reformist mullah named Mohammad Ali Zam noted that 73% of Iranians (86% of students) did not say their daily prayers. It was a surprising secular turn for a country which had embraced a religious renaissance less than a generation ago. Two, in a nation where the legal marriage age is nine, at least 45% of the population is under 20 and 60% under 30. These demographics are actually compatible to other Middle Eastern sheikdoms, which had witnessed their own babybooms as the oil prices soared in the 70s, but Iran’s babyboom has more artificial nature to it. Thanks to shackling Islamic laws towards abortion and contraceptives in the years following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the country’s population grew from 35 million in 1979 to 65 million. Some birth control measures were implemented in the late 80s and 90s, and population growth peaked at 3.2% in 1986. Iran is (and will be) unable to create jobs now as rapidly as mothers created babies in the 80s; in 2007, unemployment was nearly 12%; now it is over 20%. Considering all these numbers, although it has been able to survive waves of unrest periodically in the past, the theocratic regime in Iran is unlikely serve out this decade.