By Hamid Enayat
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has announced that it will not be holding public events this year for the country’s annual anti-Israeli celebration, Quds Day. The decision is perhaps the clearest sign yet of the Iranian regime’s inconsistent response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the Islamic Republic much harder than any other Middle Eastern country.
According to that regime, Covid-19 has killed just over 6,000 people, while something like 80,000 have recovered from the illness. But other sources indicate that the impact of the outbreak is much worse – perhaps more than six times as bad in terms of death toll and more than ten times as bad in terms of overall infection rate.
Under those circumstances, it is no wonder that the IRGC would be wary of holding public demonstrations and dramatically increasing the risk of sickness and death for its officers and supporters. But the effective cancellation of Quds Day only underscores the fact that neither the IRGC nor the regime as a whole is interested in extending the same consideration to the overall population, which is overwhelmingly opposed to the mullahs’ rule.
Iran has been rocked by two nationwide uprisings in as many years. In December 2017, economic protests in the city of Mashhad quickly spread to more than 100 other cities and towns, while the message from participants expanded to include calls for the resignation of leading officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. That movement lasted for much of the following month before being forced back underground after dozens of protesters were killed and hundreds arrested.
Then, in November 2019, a sharp increase in government-set gasoline prices sparked another nationwide uprising, which resurrected many of the same slogans, like “death to the dictator.” This time, the IRGC-led crackdown was much more severe, resulting in an estimated 1,500 deaths and thousands of arrests. Persons swept up in that crackdown are still being put on trial and sentenced to multiple years in prison, even as coronavirus rages through the Iranian penal system, killing inmates and providing additional cover for familiar human rights abuses.
The regime’s escalating crackdown on dissent is matched by an escalating preoccupation with creating symbols of its own supposed legitimacy and popular support. Holding public Quds Day celebrations would surely harm whatever support the regime still enjoy from that minority of the Iranian public that lionizes the Revolutionary Guards and shares the mullahs’ fundamentalist outlook on Islam and its relationship with the West.
However, this stands in contrast to Iranian authorities’ view of other recent public gatherings, which are designed to maximize participation not just by hardliners but by anyone who can be incentivized to attend a parade or cast a ballot.
Documents obtained by the National Council of Resistance of Iran indicate that Tehran was aware of an active coronavirus outbreak before the end of January – weeks before the anniversary of the 1979 revolution and a full month before the country’s parliamentary election. But rather than reorganize those events or even warn its people of the danger, the Iranian regime encouraged the greatest possible participation in both, while denying the presence of the virus until February 19, two days before the elections were scheduled to take place.
Against a backdrop of disinformation, attendance at the anniversary celebration remained mandatory for government employees. Meanwhile, poor residents of rural towns were given free transportation to Tehran, where they were able to appear before the cameras for state media outlets while no doubt being exposed to Covid-19. From there, countless Iranians took the disease back with them to their hometowns, kicking off the outbreak that has reportedly killed upwards of 38,000 people so far.
The ultimate fate of those people, their families, and their neighbors, was unimportant to the regime, at least in comparison to the value of their attendance at parades that ostensibly proclaimed popular support for the government. Large crowds were all that were needed for the state media to contradict the message of an uprising that had been put down, with great difficulty, just three months earlier. The resulting message was far from convincing, but it was enough to sow doubt, even within Western media, about the regime’s status and its hold on power.
Of course, no such doubt could be expected to take hold in the people who had actually participated in either or both of the nationwide uprisings. And the regime’s propaganda cannot possibly be expected to outweigh the impact of government actions and policies that demonstrate an obvious disregard for human life. The manufactured displays of popular support may have produced short-term benefits for Tehran, but in the long run they will only serve to further validate protesters’ long-held grievances.
How much stronger will those grievances prove to be, once the absence of Quds Day demonstrations make it obvious that the regime and the IRGC are concerned about Covid-19’s impact on their supporters, but not on the population as a whole? And how much clearer is that message of selective concern when one considers that Tehran has already ordered many working class Iranians back to their jobs, in absence of safeguards or support, while the spread of the disease has barely diminished?
Things are going to get worse for the Islamic Republic in the weeks to come. At least one statistical model projects that by the end of the current month, the death toll from Iran’s outbreak could rise by upwards of 200 percent. And tragically, the brunt of this impact is likely to be felt by those who have dared to express dissent or advocate for democracy. Hardliners will be protected to whatever extent the regime is able. Yet it’s difficult to imagine that situation having any long-term impact other than amplification of the existing domestic unrest.
Having already narrowly avoided overthrow during two previous uprisings, Iran’s theocratic regime may not be long for the world in the wake of its callous, self-serving management of this latest national crisis.