The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Iran File: Civil Disorder Adopts New Forms in Iran during Pandemic
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The Iranian government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak may spark new civil disorder that undermines regime stability. Civil disorder during the pandemic could take a new form, different from the one for which the regime is best prepared. Nationwide protests erupted in late 2017 and again in 2019, with smaller street protests breaking out intermittently. Regime security forces have proved they are able to crack down on mainstream street protests quickly and violently.
As high COVID-19 infection rates keep many Iranians inside, mainstream protests will not likely break out in the same way. Small anti-regime groups may commit targeted acts of violence and vigilante activity may increase, stressing local law enforcement officers who may become alienated by central government policies they oppose. Regime collapse or serious destabilization in the next 12 months remains very unlikely but has become more plausible.
The Iranian judiciary is struggling to respond to Iran’s rebelling prison population. Prisoners around the country have protested, *rioted and even broken out en masse over fears of contracting COVID-19. Security forces and prison officials used live fire to quell prison protests at the end of March, killing 36 prisoners. The judiciary temporarily *freed nearly 100,000 prisoners but did not address the health concerns causing the unrest. Many newly freed prisoners are gathering on the streets with nowhere to go, stressing local communities and the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF). Tehran Province LEF Commander Hossein Rahimi claimed that crime has doubled since the prisoners were released. Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi *denied Rahimi’s claim.
The national government’s mismanaged coronavirus policy will burden local law enforcement. Local LEF likely helped to prevent travel to vacation destinations outside Tehran at the beginning of March, defying an Interior Ministry official who *ordered roads to reopen. The Rouhani administration decided to reopen low-risk economic activity on April 11 and high-risk economic activity—such as schools and social clubs—as soon as April 18. The government’s decision may exacerbate tensions between local and national officials. Local LEF may defy orders again to permit travel to their regions, particularly if a second wave of coronavirus cases emerges.
Small groups have targeted regime symbols. Targeted violence is harder for regime security forces to track and prevent. Multiple gunmen on motorbikes *shot and killed a Friday Prayer leader in Mahshahr, Khuzestan province on April 5. Friday Prayer leaders are Khamenei’s local deputies and a symbol of the Imams’ political control of Iran. Mahshahr was one of the bloodiest cities during the November 2019 protests. Iranian dissidents may be more likely to conduct targeted attacks as newly unemployed Iranians have more time to develop anti-regime groups yet are reluctant to participate in mass gatherings in the short term.
Iranians may still protest in the streets during the pandemic if they consider their grievances greater than the risk of COVID-19. Families of prisoners killed during the prison uprising in the southwestern city of Ahvaz gathered on April 1 to protest the excessive violence. Iraqis are showing that large-scale protests are possible even in the midst of the pandemic. Protesters in predominantly Shia Sadr City and Nasiriyah, Iraq continue to risk exposure to the virus to attend anti-government demonstrations. The previous Iraqi anti-government protest wave that began in October 2019 likely inspired Iranians, particularly near the ethnically Arab southwestern border, to participate in a November 2019 protest wave in Iran. Lower-income Iranians may gather despite coronavirus risk like their Iraqi neighbors. If Iranian security forces use the harsh crackdown tactics they applied in November on smaller scale protests, they could spark broader demonstrations.
Initial anti-regime activity related to the COVID-19 outbreak exposes weak points in the regime’s ability to respond to dissidence. Iranian security forces cannot quell civil disorder during coronavirus with the same tactics they used to crack down on mass street protests in the past. The swift November 2019 crackdown shows that the regime has a successful contingency plan for mass street protests. That plan relied heavily on the LEF, however. The regime will struggle to use a similar approach in the face of defiant local LEF, which are the regime’s first line of defense. Dissatisfied LEF will inhibit, possibly severely, the regime’s ability to put down street protests. Managing the virus not only stresses Iran’s growing principlist-reformist divide but also puts new stress on local-national cleavages. Civil disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic could therefore have an unprecedented and unanticipated effect on regime stability.