After multiple popular uprisings spanning the two previous years, Iranian protests became briefly halted due to the coronavirus pandemic’s backdrop. This is not to say that the people’s outrage at economic mismanagement and government corruption actually abated. Organizing large-scale demonstrations just became more challenging in the face of deadly outbreaks that affected Iran much more severely than surrounding nations.
However, one thing that did not become subdued was the Iranian regime’s anxiety over public unrest. In fact, there is reason to believe that that anxiety only deepened over the course of the pandemic, as Iranian citizens became more and more aware of the regime’s abject failure to confront the public health crisis.
The regime deliberately allowed Iranian outbreaks to go relatively unchecked, using people as a means of diminishing the scale of protests over the short term and also as a means of consolidating their control over civil society. Remarks from the regime’ Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, characterizing the pandemic as a “blessing,” and the fact that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was given the authority to canvas neighborhoods from door to door, ostensibly in order to identify and isolate the infected, confirm regime’s intention of using mass casualties to prevent and uprising.
In January 2020, just a month before the first Iranian cases of Covid-19 were officially acknowledged, university students and other Iranians staged protests across more than a dozen provinces in order to specifically condemn the IRGC and the ruling system behind it, for the missile strike and attempted cover-up involving Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752.
Protesters burned images of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC Quds Force who had been killed in a US airstrike. In this way, the protesters rejected narratives that the regime had been furiously promoting in the preceding days, which portrayed Soleimani as a hero to all Iranians. Even more significantly, the movement represented fresh defiance of the IRGC’s crackdowns on dissent, which had reached a sort of peak less than two months earlier, in November 2019.
It was in that month that Tehran announced a sharp increase in the price of gasoline, prompting spontaneous demonstrations that encompassed nearly 200 localities in a matter of only days. The unrest showcased the people’s perception of the regime’s authorities as being far more interested in their own projects, including the financing of the IRGC and its terrorist proxies, than in the basic welfare of a population whose fortunes had already declined precipitously.
Far from addressing that grievance, authorities responded with some of their most brutal suppressive measures. The IRGC took the lead in opening fire on crowds of protesters, ultimately killing above 1,500. Amnesty International confirmed that gunmen had been aiming to kill, and it later issued a report detailing much of the torture that detainees had been subjected to in the wake of the uprising. Back then, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) determined the number of those arrests to be around 12,000.
It was very specifically these repressive efforts that activists rejected at the start of 2020. Their defiance has persisted to the present day, as manifested in incidents ranging from small local demonstrations to demonstrations coordinated on a national scale by certain beleaguered demographics. Citizens and authorities in Sistan and Baluchistan Province clashed earlier this month following the killing of several fuel porters who opposed the IRGC’s self-serving restrictions on a livelihood that was essentially their only means of survival. Since then, pensioners from across the country have staged their ninth nationwide protests in three months to call attention to the fact that they are universal struggling to meet their most basic needs.
The coronavirus pandemic has naturally exacerbated these issues, although the economic decline predates the public health crisis and is more attributable to government mismanagement and endemic corruption. At various times, regime officials have attempted to lay blame at the feet of US sanctions. Still, the public has seemingly rejected this explanation, and some officials have acknowledged the reality of the regime’s culpability.
On March 6, Fars News Agency quoted Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, as saying, “This inefficient state of the country’s economic management must end. From 2014 to this year, people’s purchasing power has fallen sharply. An important part of the problems now is not the sanctions but the weakness of management.” The urgency at the start of that quotation has been repeated by other officials and other state news outlets, often with the explicit acknowledgment that if the problems are not reverse, the result will be further unrest which could seriously threaten the ruling system’s hold on power.
On February 28, the daily newspaper Jahan-e Sanat referred to public resentment as a “ticking time bomb” and said: “The scope of consequences of this bomb will know neither friend nor foe. If this time bomb explodes as a result of the country’s rulers being negligent, underestimating this potential and terrible danger, and failing to reduce the class gap in society, nothing will be left of us.”
It is rare to hear regime-linked media speculating in this way about the government’s potential overthrow. Yet, that has been an inescapable feature of public discourse since the first of the recent sequence of popular uprisings in January 2018. Then, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei begrudgingly admitted that the leading opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), had “planned for months” to popularize anti-government slogans and set the stage for protests in more than 100 cities and towns.
Since then, various regime officials have warned about the potential for further growth in public support for the MEK’s platform of regime change. By and large, those statements have been framed as advice for fellow officials regarding how to forestall threats. But as with any dictatorial regime, Tehran is obsessed with projecting an image of strength and will always downplay its own vulnerability to the greatest extent possible.
When there is any sign of the regime acknowledging that vulnerability, it is something that the international community must pay very close attention to. If the mullahs feel compelled to acknowledge that there is any ticking time bomb at all, then it is a safe bet that the bomb is much closer to going off than they would have the World believe.
Iran’s wealth gap is growing by the day, the coronavirus pandemic is no closer to being under control, the government’s repressive measures are escalating but are also being defied at every turn, and an organized opposition movement is acquiring more and more public support while promoting a concrete plan to establish truly democratic governance in Iran.
Before those conditions lead to the next great uprising by the Iranian people, the other nations of the World will want to carefully consider which side they want to be on when push comes to shove.