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Iran’s Coronavirus, and Impending Public Protests

Iran’s Coronavirus, and Impending Public Protests
Iran’s regime’s resorts to suppressive measures under pretext of coronavirus

The coronavirus epidemic is only the latest in a long line of crises to visit Iran in recent months. The current crisis is different from its predecessors in terms of its indiscriminate impact upon both ordinary Iranians and regime officials, both activists and apolitical citizens, and both supporters and detractors of the Iranian regime.

Many of the prior crises involved widespread domestic unrest. The impact on protesters was substantial, especially last November when a nationwide uprising led to 1,500 people being killed and more than 12,000 being arrested. Still, the overriding legacy of this and other protests has been their revelation of the regime’s vulnerability and the people’s abiding desire for regime change.

Other recent crisis were more akin to the coronavirus outbreak in the sense that they were fundamentally natural phenomena. In March and April of last year, for instance, nearly all of Iran’s provinces were affected by severe flooding. And while regime officials are largely insulated from the effects of such disasters, ordinary Iranians are routinely left exposed.

Government incompetence only exacerbates the impact of natural disasters, and the flooding led to numerous clashes between citizens and authorities whose response predominantly focused on protecting their own assets rather than providing relief to the public. In many cases, local communities organized their own relief efforts, underscoring the lack of compassionate leadership and no doubt contributing to the anti-government sentiment that would fuel November’s uprising.

Ordinary Iranians have been left very much on their own during the coronavirus outbreak, as well. Even basic guidelines from the government have been inconsistent and self-contradictory. On Tuesday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered the closure of key religious shrines. But this came after weeks of clerical authorities insisting that they stay open. It also coincided with the repetition of public statements rejecting the prospect of large-scale quarantines.

In justifying such statements, regime’s President, Hassan Rouhani announced that the coronavirus epidemic had passed its peak, even as his Health Ministry continued to announce death tolls that set new records each day. Officially, the total number of fatal incidences of COVID-19 just recently surpassed 1,000. But according to independent reporting from sources that include the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), that benchmark was reached at the beginning of the month.

On March 8, a 17-page report from the NCRI indicated that 2,300 people had died from coronavirus, and recent reports put the number of fatalities over 6000. And earlier this week, a doctor in one of Tehran’s largest hospitals told TIME reporters that the total number of infections had likely exceeded one million across Iran. Just as that report came out, Iranian officials hinted at their awareness of the crisis’ severity. While still rejecting independent reports of the actual infection and mortality rates, the Health Ministry suggested that millions of cases were possible in the future.

This announcement did little to counter the effects of more than a month of denials and misinformation. But alongside official death tolls that have been steadily edging upwards, the Health Ministry’s statement helped to highlight the regime’s difficulties in denying the reality of this crisis. Part of the reason for this is because the incompetent government response has contributed to infections and deaths among regime authorities themselves.

For Tehran, this is grounds for serious concern. The impact of the coronavirus outbreak will continue to grow for as long as it takes the government response to improve. In fact, that may never happen, and international authorities may need to intervene. Meanwhile, as with prior man-made disasters, the long-term consequences will be uniquely severe for the regime.

Iranians hardly needed further confirmation of Tehran’s incompetence or its indifference to their plight. But this latest crisis provides it nonetheless. And whenever the outbreak comes under control and life begins to resume some semblance of normality, there is little doubt that public protests and calls for a change of government will confront the regime with a new crisis in short order.

This isn’t just the optimistic speculation of opponents of the Iranian theocracy. Persons close to the regime and its supreme leader have come to the same conclusion and have urged repressive institutions to ready themselves for new clashes with a restive public.

On Tuesday, the NCRI provided English translation of an analysis prepared by a hardline Iranian think tank and published by the Mizan News Agency. It said, in part, that the fallout from coronavirus could lead to “dangerous rebellions,” with local unrest giving rise to a nationwide movement, as in the case of previous uprisings.

The article went on to recommend a proactive military response to the situation. And indeed, this is exactly the approach that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took this week by shifting management of the coronavirus outbreak away from political authorities and into the hands of the armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

This was ostensibly meant to discourage unnecessary travel and prevent the disease from spreading within large gatherings. But in practice it only adds to the IRGC’s extensive repressive capabilities and its control over domestic affairs. Yet it is not at all clear that that effect will last beyond the current crisis.

During the November uprising and similar protests, organized opponents of the clerical regime have seriously tested the limits of IRGC control. The 1,500 deaths in November were a testament to the regime’s desperation as much as they were a sign of its disregard for public welfare. That desperation can only be expected to grow in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, especially since it appears to be ravaging the regime’s leadership and opening the door to devastating internal power struggles.

Ultimately, the road ahead will be difficult for Iran. But each crisis has only served to solidify anti-government sentiment and inspire more pro-democracy activism over the long term. The regime knows this, and it is working to protect itself. But its repressive measures can only remain effective for so long.