(CNN) — Earlier this year, Iran flaunted a new patriotic song targeting school children around the country. Titled “Salute, Commander,” the song was a tribute to Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Imam Mahdi, a descendant of Prophet Mohammed who Shiite Muslims believe went into hiding in the 10th century and will reappear one day to end injustice.

“Salute, commander,” goes the song. “I’m a child, but the life of my family and I, all belongs to you.” In a music video published on Iranian media, thousands of young boys and veiled girls are seen singing in unison to a live performance of the song. Some are seen crying, and others are wearing military uniforms while holding posters of former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a United States airstrike in 2020.

Critics decried the song as an attempt to indoctrinate children and instill in them loyalty for the Islamic Republic.

But Iran analysts say that current anti-regime protests sweeping through the country have shown that the regime has failed to subdue the younger generation after more than 40 years in power.

Protests erupted in Iran on September 17, triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in a hospital three days after being arrested by “morality police” and taken to a “re-education center.”

More than half of Iranians were born after the 1979 Islamic revolution and have known no other regime, but many are now speaking out.

School children are protesting their leaders on an unprecedented scale that may prove difficult to contain, say experts. In videos on social media and seen by CNN, more protests now involve school children.

“There is another layer [to the demonstrations], which is the protests we have been seeing in schools,” said Tara Sepehri Far, a senior researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, adding that it is “unprecedented” for Iran.

The government has said it is sending underaged protesters to mental health centers.

In an interview with a reformist Iranian newspaper, Iran’s Education Minister Yousef Nouri last week acknowledged that school students had indeed been protesting, and the government has been responding by detaining and sending them to mental health facilities. The establishments are meant to “reform” the protesting students and rid them of their “anti-social” behaviors, he said.

The mental health facilities act like detention centers, said Hossein Raeesi, an Iranian human rights lawyer and adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, adding that within the establishments, psychologists and social workers are following a strict government agenda and aren’t allowed to work independently with the children.

“They don’t provide psychological and psychosocial support for the kids,” Raeesi told CNN, but rather “brainwash” them and often intimidate or threaten them. “They come out worse than when they entered.”

While the official did not say how many students have been detained so far, experts say that a large number of children are at risk as the protests have heavy youth participation.

Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch said authorities are finding it difficult to police underage demonstrators. While it is easy to criminalize adult protesters, violent crackdowns against children risk full-blown anger throughout the country, she added.

Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi, the deputy commander of the IRGC, placed the average age of those arrested in “recent riots” at 15 years old, reported the state news agency IRNA on October 5. The commander attributed the phenomenon to “neglect of education.”

Rights groups say the crackdown on children has been brutal, with the government responding to child protesters with arrests and even violence.

Between September 20 and September 30, rights watchdog Amnesty International documented the killing of at least 23 children, it said last week, sounding the alarm about an already violent crackdown that is now targeting children.

According to Amnesty, “most of the boys were killed by security forces unlawfully firing live ammunition at them,” and “three girls and a boy died after fatal beatings by security forces.”

“Two boys died after being shot with metal pellets at close range,” it added.

The watchdog said it has so far recorded the deaths of 144 men, women and children killed by Iran’s security forces between September 19 and October 3. Overall, 16% of deaths are children, said Amnesty, adding that the real number of total deaths is estimated to be higher.

CNN cannot independently verify the death toll.

On Sunday, video obtained by CNN from the pro-reform activist outlet IranWire showed high school students in Tehran’s Narmak area protesting and chanting “Death to the dictator.” On Friday and Saturday, high school girls were seen taking off their headscarves and protesting in the cities of Ardabil and Sanandaj, video obtained by CNN showed.

Iran also witnessed protests in October by high school students in the northern city of Rasht, as well as in Ghaleh Hassan Khan, a town east of Tehran, according to video obtained by CNN.

The United Nation’s children agency UNICEF has also called for the protection of children and adolescents amid Iran’s protests.

“The Iranian authorities’ unrelenting brutal crackdown on what many in Iran consider an ongoing popular uprising against the Islamic Republic system has involved an all-out attack on child protesters,” Nassim Papayianni, Amnesty International’s senior campaigner on Iran, told CNN.

After years of enforced ideological education, authorities are now faced with a generation that is particularly defiant, said Sepehri Far. “It’s a generation standing up to them.”

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