Will COVID-19 inhibit Iran’s ability to suppress protests?
Since 2017, during the second term of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, Iran has seen several waves of protests rooted in political, social, and, most importantly, economic grievances. The latter have been reflected in the demographics of dissent. In the past three years, anti-regime unrest has not only been prevalent in the Islamic Republic’s strongholds — such as the religiously conservative cities of Qom and Mashhad — but has also been driven by rural, working-class Iranians who make up the regime’s core base of support. The COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on Iran’s ailing economy, which was already at breaking point as a result of international sanctions, domestic mismanagement, and rampant corruption.
There is growing concern about post-pandemic fallout on Iran’s streets, with there being every indication that unrest will continue to grow, and even accelerate, as a result of the human and economic cost of the coronavirus, as even regime insiders concede. Speaking about the economic consequences of the pandemic, Ahmad Naderi, a conservative parliamentarian for Tehran, said the collapse of the Iranian stock market will trigger “riots bigger than [in] 2017 and 2019, and certainly bigger than [in the] last decade.” Similarly, on May 9, former “reformist” President Mohammad Khatami warned that Iranian “people are dissatisfied with the current situation” and that this could spark a “gradual increase in violent protests” that the regime would “respond to with violence.” Khatami highlighted that any future “cycle of violence” would be more intense than in the past.