By Majid Rafizadeh
April 20, 2020
Before the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) erupted in Iran, the Islamic Republic was facing an increasing number of demonstrations. Some of the most recent widespread protests occurred in November and December last year, when large sections of the populace were angered by the economic situation and the regime’s decision to unexpectedly increase gasoline prices by 50 percent.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stepped forward with his usual efforts to discredit the protesters’ popular slogans, which included bold chants such as “Death to the dictator,” “Death to Khamenei,” and “Death to (President Hassan) Rouhani.” The regime’s security forces also responded with aggression, killing and injuring many civilians.
Since the coronavirus crisis erupted in Iran, the protests and demonstrations appear to have subsided. This is most likely due to the scope and magnitude of the virus in the country, the rules for social distancing, and people’s understanding of the risks that mass gatherings can bring about. But there are several signs indicating that the regime will face an unprecedented level of protests when the coronavirus is defeated.
Iran is one of the countries hit hardest by COVID-19. According to official figures, more than 5,000 have died from the virus and over 80,000 people have been infected across the country. But, according to the opposition group the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the coronavirus death toll in Iran has exceeded 27,000.
The Iranian authorities have been caught red-handed attempting to lie to the public. A report, written and compiled by experts for the Iranian parliament, revealed that the number of coronavirus deaths in Iran could already be as high as 8,500, and the total number of people with COVID-19 infections could reach 760,000. Deputy Health Minister Ali Reza Raisi immediately attempted to refute the report, warning that: “The real figures are more than the official statistics but it is not correct to multiply official figures by two or three.”
It is important to point out it was only in January that many people took to the streets to protest against the regime because it was caught lying about the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane. The Iranian leaders’ first thought was to hide the truth, mislead the international community and deny any involvement in the incident. But, once it was faced with overwhelming evidence, including credible intelligence reports from different governments and a video showing that the plane was hit by at least one missile, the Islamic Republic was forced to acknowledge that its forces shot down the plane.
The regime’s lying and cover-ups sparked anger and fury inside Iran, with many Iranians demanding that Khamenei resign. “Commander-in-chief (Khamenei) resign, resign,” they chanted. People also shouted “Death to the liars” and “Death to Khamenei.”
Intriguingly, even Iran’s state-controlled Persian newspapers have acknowledged the prospect of post-coronavirus demonstrations and have begun warning government officials of the looming crisis. Iran Daily wrote this month: “Cries will rise the day after the coronavirus. The society pursues a major change. We will have great social upheavals after the coronavirus. Iran’s tomorrow after the virus won’t be quiet. We will face multiple, powerful events like (the widespread protests of) January 2018.”
The events of January 2018 that Iran Daily referred to saw the regime experience a political earthquake. The scale and political orientation of the protests were striking, as cities across the country witnessed large-scale demonstrations against a regime that was incapable of addressing the people’s economic and political demands. People demanded justice for the plundering of their wealth by institutions tied to the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Reflecting the desire of Iranians to change the regime, people chanted: “Reformists, hard-liners, the game is over now.”
Sharq Daily echoed the same message as Iran Daily, stating: “The relation between society and the state has reached a sensitive phase. Events in November and January, and the expansion of protests in (many cities and towns), along with people’s slogans and public apathy in the February elections, have created (vulnerable) conditions that require making tough decisions (to rescue the political system).”
These factors show that there is a storm of protest waiting to hit the Iranian regime when the coronavirus outbreak is defeated due to the authorities’ cover-ups, lies and mishandling of the crisis.