The Coronavirus Won’t Kill the Islamic Republic

The pandemic hit Iran harder than almost anywhere—but may have strengthened the regime’s hard-liners.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, waves as he attends a gathering of Basij militia forces in Tehran on Nov. 26, 2007.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, waves as he attends a gathering of Basij militia forces in Tehran on Nov. 26, 2007. AFP via Getty Images

Iran has been hit hard by the novel coronavirus. As a result of its extensive ties with China and its typical bureaucratic incompetence and political malfeasance, the disease, or COVID-19, came early to Iran and has been wreaking havoc. As of April 2, Iran had more than 50,000 cases and just over 3,100 deaths—the seventh-most cases in the world and the fifth-most deaths. Moreover, Iran’s number of infections is undoubtedly much higher, probably three to five times more. Several Iranian officials have attested to this, but it is also suggested by the country’s death rate of 6.3 percent of those infected—which is at least three times higher than that of most countries, suggesting that the number of cases is much higher than Iran knows or will admit.

The regime has made an absolute mess of the situation. Many Iranian officials have even been infected, and roughly a dozen senior leaders have died. The regime has been repeatedly caught lying about the spread and impact of the disease, as well as its own preparedness to cope with it. COVID-19 has reinforced common Iranian frustrations with the corruption and ineptitude of the regime.

COVID-19 is just the latest in a series of calamities to befall the Iranian people. U.S. sanctions have hamstrung the Iranian economy over the past year, causing nearly a 9 percent contraction of Iran’s GDP last year. This prompted the regime to eliminate fuel subsidies, setting off widespread riots. Massive floods have devastated large parts of the country, damaging agriculture and infrastructure and destroying the homes of thousands of people. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia and Russia have gone to war over oil prices, threatening to suffocate Iran’s already gasping government revenues. Meanwhile, Iran has arguably been in a pre-revolutionary state since about 1997. Since then, it has experienced mass public protests aimed at overthrowing the regime in 1999, 2000, 2003, 2009, 2017, and 2019-2020.

As a result of all this, is it reasonable to ask whether the COVID-19 crisis might finally bring down the Iranian regime? Unfortunately for everyone but Iran’s autocratic leadership, that seems unlikely.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

It’s true that, even before the outbreak of COVID-19, the Iranian regime had little legitimacy. It was not a venerable dynasty whose sheer longevity made Iranians feel warm and fuzzy about it. It is a pseudo-democracy at best, and the trappings of pluralism have worn thin since the revolution, so it cannot claim a mandate from the masses. What little legitimacy it retains stems from the fact that the Islamists led the revolution and won the struggle for power that followed. Some residual admiration for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini also helps. In addition, a segment of the population enthusiastically supports the regime, mostly because they benefit directly from it.

However, the Islamic Republic has ultimately withstood repeated attempts at popular revolution, not from any degree of legitimacy but by dint of force. The regime has shown itself willing to do whatever is necessary to keep itself in power, including assaulting, arresting, and killing its own citizens. And as the history of revolutions has repeatedly demonstrated, they succeed only if the regime loses the will or the capacity to use force against the people. So far, the regime never has, and there is no evidence that the COVID-19 crisis has altered either the determination or the ability.

Likewise, neither the prior calamities nor the current COVID-19 crisis appears to have increased the odds of a military coup. Over the decades, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has grown in power to the point where it is almost coterminous with the regime, giving the IRGC no reason to overthrow it. While some expatriates continue to hope that the regular armed forces, the Artesh, would move against the regime if given a chance, there is no evidence of that. In fact, whenever evidence has been available, it typically shows the Artesh competing with the IRGC to demonstrate its loyalty to the regime.

None of this history suggests that COVID-19 would have a decisive impact on the regime’s hold on power in the near term. Tehran’s appalling mishandling of the virus will doubtless further erode the regime’s legitimacy. However, since legitimacy has not been the strong suit of the Islamic Republic for many years, there is little reason to believe that this will affect or effect a change of regime.

Moreover, there are at least three aspects of the current crisis that suggest that a successful revolution will be less likely in the near future:

First, there has never been a successful revolution without mass demonstrations. The spread and fear of COVID-19 have effectively eliminated the potential for large-scale marches, rallies, and other mass protests that have been the key to every previous revolution in history. Indeed, the disease has ended the protest movements in Iraq and Lebanon, which had been going on for months. If there were widespread strikes in Iran, it is not clear that anyone would even notice. What would they even look like? While it is possible that Iranian revolutionaries might devise the first virtual revolution to topple a regime, that seems unlikely.

Second, the hard-liners are responding in a more responsible fashion than the pragmatists. Iran never ceases to amaze. So far, it has been the hard-liners, led by the IRGC, who have responded in the most efficacious and appropriate fashion. They have been the ones arguing for travel bans, quarantines, curfews, social distancing, canceling of religious and cultural events, and government assistance to those physically and economically distressed. Bizarrely, it has been the moderates and pragmatists, led by President Hassan Rouhani, who have insisted that the virus is not very dangerous, that Iran’s medical problems are exaggerated, and that people should go about their daily lives. For instance, in mid-March, despite a consensus among Iranian doctors and health experts that Iran’s cities needed to be under quarantine, Rouhani refused to do so. He and his allies reportedly favored preserving Iran’s economy at the expense of allowing the virus to spread.  Meanwhile, Iran’s Interior Ministry, led by the notorious hard-liner Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, made the unpopular decision to close all of Iran’s religious shrines, despite unhappiness from the clergy and the most conservative segments of the public. Consequently, when the history of this crisis is finally written, Iranians may see the hard-liners as the heroes and the pragmatists as the villains of the story. That, too, would make them less inclined to move decisively against the system.

Finally, the regime leadership tends to close ranks in the face of any crisis. So far, the political aspect of the COVID-19 crisis in Iran has been about assigning blame, and that has largely fallen on the pragmatists. However, if the crisis were to morph into a threat to the regime by popular forces, the history of the Islamic Republic suggests those fissures would disappear. The regime’s leadership tends to quickly cohere around the hardest-line position of crushing dissent no matter what the cost. This is what happened in 1999, when Mohammad Khatami’s reform movement began to turn into a wider revolutionary threat. It is also what happened in 2009 in response to the Green Revolution—and, indeed, in the face of every other large-scale protest movement.

Thus, it seems unlikely that the COVID-19 crisis will trigger regime change in Iran in the near term. Over the longer term, however, the regime’s catastrophic mishandling of the virus, even despite the more appropriate reactions of its hard-liners, will probably reinforce the already widespread desire for political change among Iranians.

The incompetence and corruption of the regime is one of the most important complaints of average Iranians who have been voting against the regime’s preferred candidates, taking to the streets to protest on a regular basis, and chanting for the end of the regime and the overthrow of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in increasing numbers for more than 20 years. While COVID-19 seems unlikely to be the trigger for the fall of the Islamic Republic, when the regime’s history is finally written, it may very well be that we will look back on this crisis and say that it helped hasten its end.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the new book Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness.

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