Iran faces generational split 45 years after Islamic revolution

After toppling the Shah, the new leaders failed to deliver on promises of social justice and democracy

Iran has marked the 45th anniversary of the Islamic revolution this week with speeches and mass marches by loyalists while the government has scrambled to convince voters to cast ballots in the March 1st elections. Tehran regards a high turnout in elections as an affirmation of legitimacy.

Iranians are set to choose representatives for the 290-seat legislature and 88 clerics for the Assembly of Experts. The latter will elect Iran’s next supreme leader, the ultimate authority in the regime. Candidates are selected conservatives. Moderates and reformists have been sidelined.

After toppling the Shah in 1979, the revolutionaries promised social justice, freedom and democracy, but have not delivered. This has created sharp divisions between the revolutionary generation and younger people who since 1999 have staged 10 uprisings which have been systematically crushed. The latest was in 2022-2023 and was sparked by the arrest and death of Kurdish-Iranian Mahsa Amini (22), who was accused of not wearing her headscarf as mandated and died while in the custody of the morality police.

On the domestic level, the regime has improved literacy and university education rates, cut maternal and child deaths, built infrastructure and electrified rural areas. However, widespread mismanagement and corruption, along with suffocating social and cultural impositions, have undermined positive policies.


On the regional level, Iran has had considerable success. After the clerics abandoned their attempt to export their Shia theocratic revolution to Sunni countries, they supported local groups opposing the United States and Israel, regarded as Iran’s chief enemies.

During Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Iranian Republican Guards recruited Shias to fight the Israeli occupation of the south of the country. This led to the formation of Hizbullah, which liberated the area in 2000. In 2006, Hizbullah again fought the Israeli army to a standstill. Now the kingmaker in Lebanon, Hizbullah has exchanged fire with Israeli troops since the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel.

Tehran began funding Hamas in the late 1980s when its rival, Fatah, launched efforts to make peace with Israel. After Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and Hamas’s 2007 takeover of the Strip, Iran is said to have increased financial aid and smuggled weapons into the area.

After occupying Iraq in 2003, the US gifted governance to expatriate Shia politicians largely loyal to Iran. Pro-Iranian militias joined the Iraqi army and the US-led coalition in the 2014-2017 campaign to defeat Islamic State in Iraq. In the last four months, Iraqi militiamen have been firing at US troops in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the Gaza war.

Iran has deployed pro-Iranian fighters to bolster the Syrian government in its 2011-2019 battle against local and proxy opponents and has supplied weapons to Yemen’s Houthi tribesmen during the nine-year war waged on them by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. While the war has remained stalemated, the Houthis have in recent months disrupted maritime traffic in the Red Sea to put pressure on the US and Israel to halt the Gaza war.

Last year, Iran reconciled with the Emirates and Saudi Arabia despite western ostracism and sanctions.

On the international level, Iran joined Brics, the group formed by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Iran has, reportedly, provided Russia with drones in its war with Ukraine.

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here