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.

Until now, the regime’s coercive apparatus has had both the capacity and the willingness of its members to successfully suppress anti-regime unrest, as in November 2019, when 1,500 civilians were killed by Iran’s security forces, according to Reuters. But has COVID-19 changed this balance? To what extent has the coronavirus affected the ability of the regime’s coercive apparatus to suppress future protests? What impact, if any, has the pandemic had on the regime’s security capacity? Will the public health and economic consequences of the virus alter the security forces’ willingness to open fire on protesters?

Iran’s security forces: Capacity and willingness

Iran’s security forces consist of several organizations, including the police, the Basij civil militia, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iran’s police force (or NAJA) is the first line of defense in maintaining the regime’s security and political order. Under the control of the Interior Ministry, NAJA’s operational (Emdad) and special forces (NOPO) units are responsible for controlling protests. NAJA has 300,000 personnel — half of whom are conscripts — working across different specialties.

The regime’s second line of defense is the Basij, which operates as a civilian militia under the IRGC. The Basij is made up of hundreds of thousands of Iranians divided into four main ranks: regular, active, cadre, and special. The most ideologically devout members are in the cadre and special units, numbering in total around 100,000 recruits who are paid and are one of the regime’s tools of suppression during mass unrest.

The Basij in each province operates under the command of the IRGC’s provincial units (sepah-e astani), which were created in 2008-09 to streamline coordination. The goal of the provincial IRGC is to confront and neutralize both soft and hard threats to the regime, which range from un-Islamic “cultural invasions” to mass protests. During times of unrest, all members of the Basij are deployed by the IRGC provincial guards to suppress protests. Every provincial guard unit has a security brigade (yegan-e amniat), which consists mostly of Basij members. These brigades form part of the IRGC personnel and act as the second layer of defense against mass uprising. Although there are no official statistics, the provincial guard units are thought to have around 15,000 members in total.

If all of these forces fail to neutralize and control unrest on the streets, the IRGC’s ground forces will enter the scene, as was the case in November 2019 in Mahshahr, where it sealed off the city and killed demonstrators. The IRGC will only deploy all of its forces to the streets if the security level increases to red, with the regime on the verge of collapse.

The Islamic Republic’s success in neutralizing anti-regime unrest has in large part been dependent on the willingness of its security forces to suppress and open fire on protesters. This was demonstrated during the November 2019 protests, which saw up to 1,500 civilians killed in less than two weeks. This willingness has been achieved through an extensive indoctrination system. As part of their entry to, and service in, Iran’s security and military apparatus, all recruits — as well as their families — undergo ideological indoctrination and are taught to uphold the regime at all costs. For example, the internal training manuals used by the IRGC to radicalize members refer to Iranians who rebel against the regime as enemies of Islam who must be killed, using religious scripture to justify this. Indoctrination was accelerated in the last two decades after it became clear that the second generation of guardsmen, who joined after the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, were less zealous than the first and were driven more by financial interests. This has paid dividends for the regime, exemplified by the third and present generation’s willingness to violently crush unrest in 2009, 2017-18, and 2019. 

COVID-19’s impact on Iran’s security forces

Iran has had one of the highest fatality rates from COVID-19 and poorer working-class Iranians have been by far the worst hit, as even regime officials admit. This has potentially dangerous political ramifications. Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution promised to defend this social group, which makes up the regime’s core constituency — what it calls the mustazefin (“downtrodden class”). Perhaps more importantly, most members of the IRGC and the Basij (and their families) are from this demographic. Many of them will have lost family and friends to the virus.

On top of this, the economic impact of the coronavirus is set to hurt the mustazefin class the most. In 2019, Iran’s Islamic Parliament Research Center warned that the next year could see as many as 57 million Iranians living below the poverty line. Similarly, it was reported that the average income of Iranian citizens was 70 percent lower than the poverty line. Since 2017, bread-and-butter issues have consistently brought Iranians onto the streets. In addition to major unrest in December 2017 and November 2019, Iran experienced 4,200 smaller-scale protests between January 2018 and October 2019, 72 percent of which were down to economic grievances. The economic impact of the pandemic will inevitably escalate this situation further, increasing the likelihood of unrest in the coming months. On April 7, Rouhani warned that if the country’s did not restart economic activity soon, “30 million hungry people will pour into streets.” The current situation presents Iran’s leaders with a catch-22: open the economy and risk escalating the pandemic, or keep the economy on hold and risk widespread hunger. Both options will fuel dissent. 

In the near term, illness, poverty, and hunger are likely to drive the post-COVID-19 fallout onto the streets, rather than ideological and political opposition, which have been put on ice because of the pandemic. This alone could make members of the police, the IRGC, and the Basij more reluctant to suppress protests, not least because they can relate to these grievances. It is often said that the families of the mustazefin sacrificed the most during the Iran-Iraq War, and the same could be said today with the coronavirus. But unlike the eight-year conflict during which Iran’s leaders could blame the death toll on the foreign enemy, the high fatality rate today is by and large being blamed on them and their inept response to the pandemic. 

Losing key commanders 

The direct impact of the virus on Iran’s security apparatus may also affect its ability to suppress future unrest. The IRGC has already lost several senior commanders to COVID-19, including those who held key security posts. The most significant loss for the guards was the death of Nasser Shabani, the deputy of the Sarallah Headquarters in Tehran, which acts as the most important base during any period of civil unrest in Iran. The virus has also killed some of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s closest affiliates such as Gen. Rahim Pournobrian, the head of his military advisory office. Losing the first generation of guardsmen, who have been extremely loyal to Khamenei, will have lasting consequences, and replacing them will be very difficult. Khamenei and his close circle are well aware that the second generation of guardsmen are less devoted to velayat-e faqih (“the guardianship of the Islamic jurist,” as the system of governance underpinning the Islamic Republic is known). This will raise doubts as to whether they will be less reliable in times of crisis, particularly if the system nears collapse, as was almost the case in 2009. In such a scenario some commanders may conclude that sticking with the system could be against their own long-term interests, just as many commanders in the Shah’s security apparatus laid down their weapons during the Islamic Revolution for similar reasons. While this outcome is unlikely, and is contingent on both the scale and stage of the unrest, it is not impossible.

Budget and salary cuts   

A factor that may contribute to the above is the reduction in the salaries of IRGC personnel, as a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 2, the IRGC announced that 20 percent of the monthly salaries of all commanders — including central command, district, and provincial ones — will be deducted and go toward helping “compatriots who have lost their jobs due to coronavirus.” In addition, many provincial and district commanders have imposed a wage cut on their members. Among others, in the provinces of Golestan and Kerman as well as the east district of Shiraz, all IRGC personnel will see their salaries cut by up to 20 percent. With corruption among senior officials widely known and discussed in Iran, salary cuts during a time of economic hardship could weaken the loyalty of the security forces, especially lower-paid recruits.

Budgetary issues at the macro level add to the Islamic Republic’s woes. In comparison to 2019-20, this year’s government budget shows an increase for Iran’s internal security apparatus, but a decrease for the country’s defense infrastructure of almost 50 percent. Despite escalating regional tensions, the priority given to the security apparatus indicates that Iran’s leaders expect more domestic turmoil in the coming year. Compared to last year, the IRGC has seen its budget grow by around 28 percent and NAJA has seen a 50 percent increase. However, these budgetary calculations were made on the basis of selling at least 1 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil at a price of $50 per barrel. This was a significant miscalculation. U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil have cut Tehran’s production by 90 percent since 2018. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted that, at best, Iran’s oil exports will average around 500,000 bpd in 2020 — half of its budgetary needs — but in March its exports were as low as 140,000 bpd. In addition to the fall in exports, oil prices have also tumbled. After a sharp decline into April — with Brent at $16 per barrel — oil prices are still trading well below Iran’s required level, at just under $40 per barrel as of early June. Low oil prices, coupled with the economic impact of the pandemic, will make it all but impossible for the regime to meet its budgetary calculations, and cuts to Iran’s security apparatus seem likely.

Although the Islamic Republic has invested heavily in the indoctrination of its security forces, and tried to recruit its members from more religious and conservative sections of society, in reality the bulk have joined for materialistic reasons. This is particularly true in relation to the Basij and the police, whose lower ranks are more interested in making ends meet than ideology. In a study of members of the Basij, over 66 percent claimed materialistic motivation was the most important reason for joining. Their calculus will change in times of crisis. For many ordinary members of the guards, economic incentives were and are the primary reason for sticking with the IRGC. Wage reductions coupled with the human and economic impact of the coronavirus could reduce their willingness to crush further unrest.

Conclusion

COVID-19 presents a set of unique challenges for the Islamic Republic. The virus grew in the context of political dissent, economic turmoil, and social unrest, and will only add fuel to the fire of Iranian grievances. There is every reason to believe that there will be more unrest in Iran in the near future; expressions of dissent are already starting to surface, especially on social media. Until now, the regime has been dependent on its security apparatus’ capacity and appetite to neutralize threats to its survival. However, this can change. Iran’s security forces have not been immune from the consequences of the virus, and this could have implications for the regime’s ability to suppress future unrest. It is extremely difficult to forecast the extent of this impact in practical terms. Notwithstanding this, two key variables could shape how this plays out: the scale and scope of future protests; and international pressure.

From the 1999 student uprising to the 2009 Green Movement to the November 2019 protests, tracking the history of unrest in Iran shows that protests have become greater in scale and more violent in nature, year by year. Learning from the past we can therefore expect future protests to be bigger and more violent. Economic pressure from the pandemic, coupled with biting U.S. sanctions as well as domestic corruption and mismanagement, has made the lives of poorer Iranians more miserable. Larger-scale protests will mean the regime will have to distribute its forces across the country. Such a scenario could see the security apparatus’ resources and manpower overstretched and under increased pressure, inhibiting the regime’s ability to crush protests as effectively as it has in the past. 

The degree of international support for the protests could also change the dynamic between the clerical regime and its security forces. A strong transatlantic message warning the regime of tough repercussions if it resorts to violence could undermine the security forces’ appetite for violence and help protests gain momentum. Over a decade has passed, but Iranians still blame the failure of the Green Movement on lack of support from the international community, which they believe tipped the balance in favor of Khamenei. 

No one knows how events will unfold in Iran in the coming months. However, the fact that its security apparatus has already pre-emptively detained 3,600 Iranians for “spreading anti-[regime] coronavirus rumors” online suggests that the post-pandemic fallout could be closer than we think. 

 

Saeid Golkar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a non-resident Senior Fellow on Middle East Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA). Kasra Aarabi is an analyst in the Extremism Policy Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, where he works on Iran and Shi'a Islamist extremism. The views expressed in this piece are their own.

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