In Iran’s southeastern-most province of Sistan and Baluchistan, the regime’s authorities have systematically obstructed the pathways used by fuel porters, known as ‘soukhtbar’, to carry quantities of the substance across the border with Pakistan. The porters, almost exclusively members of the local Baluch ethnic minority, often rely on this trade as their only source of income, while entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) view it as a threat to their control over vast segments of the Iranian economy, including black markets.
In February, a group of ‘soukhtbars’ staged protests against the IRGC’s role in obstructing their livelihood and increasing the danger of an already perilous profession. The IRGC responded by opening fire and killing at least two of the protesters. This in turn led to much larger protests centered on the town of Saravan, with local residents actively defending the fuel porters, lashing out at repressive authorities, and setting fire to building belonging to security forces and the government.
The unrest gradually subsided over the following weeks, but the prospect of uprisings extended far beyond the borders of Sistan and Baluchistan. In March, as part of an event marking the Iranian New Year holiday, Nowruz, the Iranian opposition president-elect, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi identified the unrest in Saravan as a sign that “the fire of the uprisings is rising from under the ashes of the coronavirus.”
Mrs. Rajavi was referring to the fact that the global pandemic had a dampening effect, due to the regime’s intentional inaction and cover-up, upon a movement for political change that was highly active just before outbreaks of Covid-19 began in Iran. In this way, it did what the regime’s repressive institutions could not, and the Iranian people’s resistance to that repression strongly suggested that the effects of the pandemic would only be temporary.
In late December 2017, a protest over economic conditions was staged in Iran’s “second city” of Mashhad, and residents of surrounding localities quickly organized their own demonstrations to coincide with it. As 2018 began, the protest movement spread to well over 100 cities and towns while also taking on stark, anti-regime slogans and explicitly rejected both the “hardline” and “reformist” factions of mainstream Iranian politics. The clear implication of this shift was that popular support for regime change was much more widespread in Iran than many had assumed.
In the face of that revelation, leading regime officials struggled to shape a propaganda narrative that would allow them to save face, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei eventually acknowledged that the demonstrations had largely been organized and facilitated by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran –Iran’s leading voice for democracy and the most effective challenge to the mullahs’ theocratic dictatorship.
Although Khamenei’s remarks on the subject revealed a sort of political vulnerability that the authorities had been keen to hide, it also permitted them to dramatically escalate their repressive tactics as the unrest continued and recurred more many months thereafter. The December 2017 uprising went on for several weeks before it was brought to heel following thousands of arrests and dozens of deaths, including several that were caused by torture. But when another uprising began in November 2019 and immediately encompassed nearly 200 cities and towns, the regime responded immediately by opening fire on numerous crowds of protests, killing 1,500. Around 12,000 people were arrested, and Amnesty International later reported that many had been subjected to torture for weeks or even months afterward.
Still, even this was not enough to contain Iranians’ outrage against the system, least of all in the wake of the January 2020 IRGC missile strike that brought down a commercial airliner near Tehran. When it became clear that the regime had attempted to cover up that incident, university students and residents of more than a dozen provinces once again staged large-scale protests and reiterated the calls for regime change that had reached mainstream status in January 2018.
Regime officials formally acknowledged the community spread of Covid-19 in mid-February 2020, but the Iranian Resistance reports suggest that this had been ongoing for as much as two months and that authorities were already aware of numerous fatalities. The lack of response to early outbreaks helped to make Iran’s public health crisis by far the worst in the Middle East. To date, the regime’s Health Ministry reports that nearly 70,000 people have died during four waves of outbreaks, but the National Council of Resistance of Iran puts that figure at over 250,000.
Khamenei set policies that deliberately exacerbated the effects of the pandemic after recognizing it as his only genuine opportunity to keep a lid on popular unrest. In fact Khamenei formally barred the import of vaccines from the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. In addition, the entire regime’s clear awareness of the potential for additional uprisings – an awareness that has seemingly grown in the wake of the Saravan protests and other recent incidents confirms the regime has an inhumane Covid-19 policy.
Over the past four months, pensioners throughout Iran have staged more than a dozen large demonstrations calling attention to the continued decline of the Iranian economy and their own struggles to meet the basic necessities of life. With their recent endorsement of a campaign to boycott the forthcoming sham presidential election, the pensioners clarified that they hold the entire ruling system accountable for the state of Iranian society.
The country’s problems are manifold, and the pensioners’ hardships pale in comparison to those of marginalized communities in places like Sistan and Baluchistan. The protests that took place there in February are now poised to return to the forefront of the public’s awareness, following the news that at least one fuel porter died of dehydration and hunger last week as a result of the additional hardships imposed by the IRGC.
The state-run newspaper Jahan-e Sanat underlined that Iran’s restive communities, “are like the fire under ashes.” The article went on to acknowledge that public anger has intensified and that it will most likely continue to do so if regime authorities respond to unrest with still more repression.
This sentiment has been echoed in other state-affiliated news sources, with Seday-e Eslahat implying that repression might have been more effective if not for the change in circumstances brought on by recent trends. “Protests in January 2018 and November 2019… have completely changed Iran’s political scene,” the newspaper observed. But neither it nor any other major outlet has offered meaningful advice regarding what the Iranian regime could do to contain the unrest, apart from violently suppressing it.
The ruling system cannot possibly pacify the population by addressing their grievances, since the grievances expressed since 2018 include objections to the very nature of the theocratic dictatorship. With this in mind, state media’s warnings about the ineffectiveness of violent repression seem to imply just one location: the regime changes will soon find itself on the brink of overthrow.