How the Pandemic in Iran contributed to a further militarization of the country
Since the global emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic Iran has remained among the top ten worst hit countries globally (next to United States, India, Brazil,) while being the worst hit country in the Middle East.
The pandemic has arrived in the country at a critical time when distrust between the population and the central state has reached a noticeably high level. While Social distrust is not a phenomena unique to Iran. However, the brutal mass killing and imprisonment of hundreds and thousands of protesters during the November 2019 protests- which were first directed against a hike in petrol prices but soon called for a change in government. Iranians even got angrier when the Ukrainian civilian airplane was shot down resulting in the death of all 176 passengers. All has anchored distrust and antagonism as key defining features in the relationship between the two sides in recent months.
Most reports have considered the pandemic isolated from other processes inside the country. This article will contextualize the pandemic within broader, pre-existing and ongoing socio-political and economic transformations which have been taking place inside the country in recent years, with a particular focus on issues of militarization and state violence.
Between Sanctions and Austerity: A Health Care System Under Siege
Prior to the emergence of Covid19, Iran’s health care system was already under immense pressure due to years of brutal economic sanctions by the US on one side, state privatizations, austerity cuts and layoffs on the other.
Hospitals have been facing unbearable pressure to deal with the pandemic while being severely under-resourced, underfunded and understaffed. Based on official state reports, at least 12 nurses have lost their lives in the battle against the Coronavirus. However even before the arrival of the pandemic there were reported cases of nurses dying due to the stress and over-exhaustion caused by working multiple shifts in a row for long periods of time.
In December 2018 more than 180 nursing associations wrote a collective statement condemning the state's 2019 budget allocations and its rejection of a proposed bill which would have made the hiring of additional nursing staff an urgent public health matter. But the state ignored these emergency calls and instead continued to imprison labor activists, students and unionists.
One of the most ironic moments during the pandemic was the mass layoff of nearly 600 nurses in one of Iran’s largest private hospitals, a move which resulted in public fury and condemnations while the state remained silent. The condition of nurses has been so severe that they began protesting in the midst of the pandemic. Since July 2020 several protests have been organized by nursing associations in Mashhad (one of the epicenters of the pandemic) and in other cities across the country. The protesting nurses have been posing the same demands as in previous years such as payment of unpaid salaries, improved working conditions in hospitals and fairer contracts. But instead of listening to and meeting the basic needs of those who have been risking their lives in the fight against the pandemic, the state considered their peaceful gatherings as a matter of security and attacked and arrested the nurses. While the Iranian state has been portraying health workers as “national heroes” and “holy martyrs” in state media, it has robbed them of their basic political rights and left them with no choice but to work under the harshest and most dangerous conditions.
Pandemic as an Opportunity to Militarize Local Neighborhoods
After weeks of deliberate delay and denial, and following a direct order by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian state responded to the pandemic by mobilizing its armed forces and Basij militias across the country. Actors and entities least prepared, experienced and trusted in dealing with a health crisis were suddenly given unprecedented new political power to protect the country against what Khamenei referred to as “biological attack” which then turned into “biological warfare by the US and Israel” in statements by other state officials and religious figures. It’s important to emphasize that this new power is not extra-legal, or extra-judicial, but very much legal and institutional as it is granted from the highest political and religious position in the country. Being the self-appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as well as the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has used his position to empower the IRGC and the Basij in the name of “national defense and security”.
The militarization of the pandemic discourse by the Supreme Leader served a double purpose for the state: It helped to further diminish state’s accountability by blaming the crisis entirely on external forces, and more importantly to justify more easily the new sweeping legal power given to the military apparatus and the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).
In a detailed article on this critical development, Iranian academic Saeid Golkar explains how the move has allowed the state to expand its military apparatus beyond the usual parameters and further into the local and neighborhood levels:
“From establishing new provincial headquarters to deploying hundreds of thousands of troops and militia personnel on emergency duty, the Guards are seemingly using the crisis as an opportunity to expand their power at the local level.”
But what is the reason behind such an unusual containment strategy? Why instead of improving the existing civilian health care infrastructure or adopting internationally recommended early measures (such as quarantining the epicenters or canceling flights from China) the state has responded by implementing a localized military infrastructure?
To answer these questions we should perhaps look at the critical role that local neighborhood committees and ad-hoc mutual aid networks have played in handling Iran’s growing environmental as well as public health crisis in recent years. In the absence of a caring, accountable and responsible state, Iran’s civil society as well as marginalized communities in the peripheries have been left with no option but to self-organize and take public health matters into their own hands. During the 2019-20 floods that heavily damaged southern regions of Khuzestan and Baluchestan, it was mainly non-state local and regional solidarity initiatives which protected the vulnerable communities. In Ahwaz for example, local youth built dozens of emergency flood barriers which protected residential areas from being submerged by the floods; a heroic move which boosted local populations' collective hope, agency and resilience in the face of climate change. Instead of welcoming and supporting the local community’s participation in environmental crisis management, the central state responded by surveillance, house raids and the arrest of the local community organizers.
But despite such arrests and intimidations, the Iranian state did not succeed in preventing the emergence of similar local initiatives during the Covid19 crisis. In the Kurdistan region for example, cities of Marivan and Saqqez formed independent committees in order to prevent the spread of Covid19 virus locally. They launched fundraising campaigns and raised necessary funds to sanitize public spaces, distributed medical packages (which included masks and sanitation items) among the local population. The committees have been also providing health instructions in Kurdish language to more marginalized and isolated communities, another move which hinders Iranian state's historic effort in diminishing non-Persian languages.
Considering the rising popularity of such grassroots organizing efforts the advancement of the IRGC military apparatus into local and neighborhood levels can be seen as a firm attempt by the state in limiting such solidarity and mutual aid networks by local communities. At the same time government is preparing to crush potential popular uprisings in the localities as discontent against the central state rises.
Pandemic Arrives in Prisons with Intensified State Violence
Perhaps no political space other than prisons illustrates more vividly the intensification of state violence against vulnerable populations during the pandemic in Iran.
Within days of the delayed official announcement regarding Covid19’s arrival to the country, families of political prisoners and prison solidarity activists launched an emergency public campaign under the slogan #FreePoliticalPrisonersIran, demanding the temporary release of all political prisoners. To counter this popular campaign in mainstream media, the state announced that it will be releasing 54,000 prisoners as a step to curb virus transmission in overcrowded prisons. But, the release only included prisoners without “security charges” who were sentenced to no more than 5 years of imprisonment. This automatically left out at least 7000-9000 people who were arrested during the 2019 nationwide protests, as well as all imprisoned labor activists, feminists, environmentalists, teachers and minority rights activists imprisoned under charges of “assembly and collusion to act against national security”. After the state's refusal to release political prisoners, prominent political prisoners like human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh went on hunger strike to echo this urgent demand from inside the prisons. Female prisoners at Urmia and Sanandaj prisons also announced collective hunger strikes. But the situation reached its peak when prisoners in at least 10 prisons from across the country began to revolt for their lives, with some of them managing to escape successfully. The state responded by deploying IRGC militias to the prisons and shooting directly at prisoners from prison rooftops. While the exact number of killed prisoners remains unknown, Amnesty International documented 35 cases in a report published in April. The highest numbers of deaths were reported in prisons of Sheyban, Sepidar and Saqqez, prisons in historically discriminated regions of Kurdistan and Ahwaz.
Lastly, the state also continued issuing execution orders for political prisoners despite the pandemic, and despite record breaking social media campaign under the slogan #StopExecutionsInIran.
The Covid19 pandemic has increased the already unbearable levels of authoritarian, carceral and militarized state violence in Iran under the discourse of “biological warfare” and “national security”. To prevent this process from becoming a new norm, progressive and internationalist organizations must loudly condemn the Iranian state and stand in solidarity with popular emancipatory movements working towards and demanding radical change in the country.