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At Iran’s New Year Holiday, Crises Persist but There Is Hope for the Future

Iran: People on the eve of Nowruz and the Iranian New Year, despite the crisis of the Coronavirus and many other crises caused by religious dictatorship, still hope for freedom.
Iran: People on the eve of Nowruz and the Iranian New Year, despite the crisis of the Coronavirus and many other crises caused by religious dictatorship, still hope for freedom.

Friday, March 20, 2020, marks the Iranian New Year holiday, Nowruz. The term literally means “a new day,” but Iranians are unlikely to notice much of an immediate change. The previous year was defined by near-constant turmoil, and the current year has begun the same way. But even though the Iranian people appear to be squarely in the middle of a very long sociopolitical storm, the various crises and instances of unrest point the way to extraordinary changes on the horizon.

As much as it wishes to prevent these changes, the Iranian regime sees them coming. This was made obvious a week before Nowruz when the state-run Mizan News Agency published an analysis prepared by regime’s think tank Asra. Titled “Coronavirus and Confrontation on Several Fronts,” the article placed the current viral outbreak in context with a long list of previous crises, in order to urge the army and paramilitary forces to prepare for their latest confrontation with the Iranian people.

The article highlighted rising levels of anti-government activism which include two nationwide uprisings in the past two years. It also pointed to the growing trend of Iranians relying on social media and independent, often banned news outlets as alternatives to the regime’s extensive propaganda networks. These have come to be sources of absolute distrust among a majority of the Iranian people, and the coronavirus outbreak has certainly done nothing to counter that trend.

When Iranian officials first acknowledged, on February 19, that the novel coronavirus had reached Iran, they had apparently already known about it for upwards of a month. Soon thereafter, they began releasing infection and fatality estimates that were wildly out of step with the testimony of medical professionals and other eyewitnesses.

In advance of Nowruz, authorities admitted that over 1,000 people had died from COVID-19. But other informed sources, especially the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), made it clear that the actual death toll was more than six times that. And while the official death toll coincides with an overall infection rate of about 15,000 individuals, Iranian doctors have made it clear that hospitals are severely overwhelmed and that the number of infections nationwide is likely to be around one million.

This independent reporting supports the conclusion that existing crises will last long into the Iranian New Year. But insofar as that reporting is reaching a large number of Iranian citizens, it also lends itself to the conclusion that the long-term impact of those crises will be much greater for the Iranian regime than for the Iranian people.

Indeed, the simmering public outrage is very likely to lead to yet another nationwide uprising, and possibly also to regime change. After all, protests over the past year have plainly expressed the desire for that outcome. Though sparked by the announcement of gas price hikes, the November 2019 uprising quickly came to be defined by slogans like “death to the dictator,” which had carried over from the previous uprising in January 2018.

It was clearly the prevalence of this sentiment that led to the Asra think tank issuing its recommendations for further escalating the existing climate of repression in advance of more public unrest. These recommendations closely mimic the actual actions taken by regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who ordered hardline entities including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij civilian militia to take the lead in responding to the coronavirus epidemic.

There is little reason to expect that this will mitigate the impact of the crisis. In fact, this lesson was well-learned at the beginning of the previous Iranian calendar year, when the IRGC took a leading role in the response to severe flooding that affected nearly every Iranian province. Rather than providing meaningful relief to flood-damaged communities, the paramilitary focused on protecting its own assets and suppress the people. This ultimately led to locally-organized disaster relief, and then to clashes between participants and the IRGC.

Between the flooding and the coronavirus epidemic, Iran both began and ended the outgoing year with clear examples of the regime’s incompetence in the face of a public crisis, as well as its callous disregard for the welfare of the people. And in between those incidents, anti-government activism demonstrated the extent to which the public is prepared to confront that regime over these and other issues.

Of course, such confrontation comes with potentially severe consequences for the Iranian people. During last November’s uprising, an estimated 1,500 people were shot dead by security forces and the IRGC. And now that Khamenei is urging the paramilitary to consolidate its power at the start of the New Year, there is cause for serious concern about the impact of the next uprising.

But the greater share of that concern belongs to the regime itself. Indeed, its brutal response to the November uprising is only indicative of the regime’s desperation. And by calling for even greater repression, the regime has signaled that it understands the long-term ineffectiveness of that brutality. Two months after the November uprising, residents of at least 17 Iranian provinces were back in the streets protesting the regime’s cover-up of the IRGC’s downing of a commercial airliner near Tehran.

That incident only provided further confirmation of Tehran’s disregard for both truth and human life. And this is the main takeaway from all of Iran’s crises, from the flood to the viral outbreak and beyond. There is no sign of pending change as the country moves into its New Year. But neither is there any sign of the Iranian people resigning themselves to being ruled by a regime with these defining characteristics.

The mullahs understand that a new uprising is inevitable, and they are preparing to use force to limit its impact. But that strategy has already shown diminishing returns over the past year, partly because the ever-more-obvious repression is fueling the regime’s international isolation. As new acts of repression loom, the international community must continue to respond with economic and diplomatic pressure. By doing so, they will surely give the Iranian people greater opportunities to guarantee that this year is the last year the theocracy remains in power.