Post-Pandemic, Iranian Regime Highlights Its Revolutionary Colors | Opinion

Responding to the global pandemic is at the forefront of all world leaders' minds. The difficult trade-off between the human and economic cost of the virus is driving different exit strategies. But in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a more pressing concern is dictating the country's COVID-19 response: the growing fear and likelihood of public unrest.

The regime's increasing anxiety about a post-pandemic "fallout" on the Iranian streets is not without reason. The virus grew in the backdrop of rising political dissent, economic turmoil and frequent civil unrest. Only months before the outbreak of COVID-19, the Islamic Republic experienced the largest wave of anti-regime demonstrations in the course of its 41-year lifespan, leaving 1,500 civilians dead. Iran's ailing economy, which contracted 7.6 percent last year, was one of the drivers of the recent protests. Recent estimates suggest Iran's GDP has already decreased by 15 percent as a result of the pandemic, and this is by no means the final figure. It is therefore not surprising that regime insiders are warning that "social patience is running out."

This growing concern is also exacerbated by the country's past. Iran's people have historically not been afraid to take to the streets, including since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Indeed, Iran's theocracy has seen several waves of major protests: urban riots in the early 1990s, student protests from 1999 to 2003 and the Green Movement in 2009. Since 2017, Iran has also experienced two major nationwide protest periods that were rooted in political and economic dissent.

More importantly, the trend of unrest in the Islamic Republic reveals that protests have only grown in size, scale and violence. In 1999, the wave of student protests was concentrated in three cities and left seven civilians dead. In 2009, the Green Movement protests were focused in at least 10 major cities and saw the regime kill as many as 76 civilians. Iran's most recent nationwide unrest, in November 2019, was spread across 100 towns and cities and left 1,500 civilians killed by Iran's repressive security apparatus, according to Reuters. Crucially, in the past three years, the Islamic Republic's stronghold areas, such as Qom and Mashhad, have become hotspots for unrest, with poorer Iranians—the regime's traditional support base—driving the protests on the streets.

All the signs indicate that the human and economic cost of the pandemic will accelerate the trend in the growth of future demonstrations. Indeed, Ahmad Naderi, a hardline parliamentarian for Tehran, recently warned that a COVID-19-induced collapse of the Iranian stock market would trigger "riots bigger than 2017 and 2019, and certainly bigger than last decade." Similarly, former "reformist" president Mohammad Khatami has also alarmed that any future "cycle of violence" that may arise from protests about the current situation would be more "intense" than in the past.

Worried about a pandemic backlash on the Iranian streets, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—the autocratic regime's ideological army—is hastily preparing to contain and suppress any future unrest.

As a first step, the IRGC has created a new Imam Hassan Headquarters (HQ) to prevent poorer Iranians from taking to the streets again. Established on April 14 upon the orders of Hossein Salami, the Guards' commander-in-chief, the Imam Hassan HQ is an ad hoc welfare central command station dedicated to "help[ing] families who lost their jobs due to coronavirus and now have livelihood problems." The creation of this HQ marks the IRGC's most significant intervention in Iran's fight with COVID-19 and is tantamount to the regime attempting to "buy" the loyalty of Iran's most vulnerable and affected social group.

Tehran skyline
Tehran skyline BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images

All of the 54,000 bases of the Basij (an IRGC sub-group) across Iran, as well as the entire manpower of the combined armed forces, will be at the disposal of the Imam Hassan HQ. These bases will be repurposed for aid collection and for the distribution of what the Guard is calling "livelihood packages." According to the IRGC's spokesman, Ramazan Sharif, "under the guidance and supervision of the Imam Hassan HQ," the "Basij distribution network" aims to provide support packages for the 3.5 million poorest families across Iran—an operation Sharif envisages will take "two to three months." The HQ will also command and coordinate between existing aid foundations, including the likes of the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation, the Mostazefin Foundation and the Astan Quds Razavi Foundation. Consequently, these charities, which have billions of U.S. dollars in tow, will temporarily concede their autonomy to the IRGC's Imam Hassan HQ—which will, in turn, determine and implement Iran's COVID-19 financial relief response.

While the IRGC initially jumped on COVID-19 as an opportunity for its ideological propaganda, the fear of unrest due to the human and economic consequences of the virus is now driving its response. Historically, the Guard has always invested in its coercive tools of suppression, something it is continuing to do now with even greater urgency. But alongside this, through the creation of the HQ, the IRGC is desperately intensifying its efforts to preclude poorer Iranians from taking to the streets. While this domestic policy modification by the Guards has gone unnoticed amid rising regional tensions, its significance cannot be overstated.

The creation of the Imam Hassan HQ highlights that the Islamic Republic itself believes it is on the road to future unrest. It is also a testament to the expanding power of the IRGC. This year has seen the Guard rapidly increase its grip over the regime, with the Iranian parliament becoming the latest organ to fall into its hands. This trend—which has the full backing of Iran's supreme leader—will likely continue into next year's presidential elections. Western policymakers need to be aware that they can no longer view the IRGC as the "deep state," as it is beginning to operate as the state in its entirety in all but name.

Policy towards Iran simply cannot afford to ignore this looming challenge. Any future talks with Tehran will take place against the backdrop of unrest and the further militarization of the revolutionary regime at the behest of the Guard. To ensure its interests—as well as the interests of the Iranian people—are fully secured, the West must acknowledge the reality on the Iranian ground before striking any prospective deal with the Islamic Republic.

Saeid Golkar is an assistant professor in the department of political science and public service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and, concurrently, a non-resident senior fellow on Middle East policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Kasra Aarabi is an analyst in the Extremism Policy Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, where he works on Iran and Shia Islamist extremism.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.