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Could the Impact of COVID-19 Herald Promising Changes in Iran?

The magnitude of the health emergency meant that the state could not adopt its usual 'suspension policy', where crucial issues are not addressed until they fade from public memory. 

Tehran: The COVID-19 outbreak has laid bare the realities of Iran’s ruling system with all its weaknesses and strengths and provided the opportunity to raise serious questions about the rationality and benefits of certain policies, restrictions, and bans that have been in place in the country for decades.

Iran is one of the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus, which has been compounded by US sanctions and a deep economic recession. Prominent reformist journalist Abbas Abdi has described the epidemic as “the first serious crisis” the whole country has faced since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Shift in a deep-seated policy 

The Islamic Republic has always tended to pursue a deep-seated policy of “suspension” in dealing with its problems i.e. either seeking to conceal a crisis or postponing to address contentious issues by leaving them unresolved until they vanish from the collective memory of the public.

A few recent examples for this policy include keeping the so-called Green Movement leaders – former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi – under house arrest without trial since 2011, blocking the approval of anti-money laundering bills, the government’s refusal to announce the death toll of the protests over a fuel price hike in November last year, and refusing to address the numerous ambiguities regarding the Ukrainian Airliner crash in January.

With the COVID-19 epidemic, however, the situation evolved in a different manner. The magnitude of this health emergency and its far-reaching consequences for the country made the adoption of the ‘suspension policy’ impossible.

A member of the medical team holds a blood sample at a testing center for coronavirus, Tehran, Iran, May 20, 2020. Photo: WANA/Ali Khara via REUTERS

Prominent Iranian economist and professor at the University of Esfahan Mohsen Ranani believes the epidemic is leading the state to a direction where there no longer remains an opportunity to postpone addressing crucial issues and problems.

Ranani notes that the country needed “a serious shock” to push the state towards adopting solemn and difficult decisions.  “I believe the coronavirus outbreak is that shock for the state to realize it can no longer postpone deciding on different fundamental issues and avoid introducing real reforms. This time the state has to either adopt groundbreaking decisions or otherwise wait until the growing gap between the system and society leads to a flurry of crises and destroy everything,” he said.

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Promising signs for future? 

Ranani argues COVID-19 will bring drastic changes in the future; the kind that eight years of Iran-Iraq war, frequency of elections, street protests, and hundreds of critics, university professors, artists and intellectuals have failed to achieve in the four decades since the Islamic Revolution.

In fact, the developments of the past three months since Iran officially announced the first COVID-19 cases in February might be an indication for more comprehensive shifts in the future.

In an unprecedented step, a state-organised annual nationwide march against Israel, known as Quds Day that was planned for the last Friday of Ramadan (May 22) was cancelled for the first time since Ayatollah Khomeini introduced it in the 1980s.

The decision to abandon such a politically significant rally, which has traditionally received extensive media coverage in Iran and abroad, signalled the extent to which the coronavirus is impacting the Islamic Republic.

In that regard, the well-known journalist and political analyst Ahmad Zeidabadi, who spent six years in jail after the 2009 disputed presidential election, used the opportunity to question the effectiveness of holding such rallies. He asked if the rallies have been successful in changing the plight of Palestinians, or improve their situation both internally and internationally.

Meanwhile, to stem the spread of the virus, the Iranian government closed down all religious sites and shrines for the first time in centuries in early March, despite initial opposition from religious authorities. In fact, the severity of the crisis forced them to show flexibility, set aside religious and ideological considerations, and take into account the advice of health experts. According to Azadeh Zamirirad, the state not only “suspended religious rituals that are essential to its political self-image” but had to actively discourage believers from participating in those rituals, facing furious reactions from hardliners.

Some hardline clerics have described the COVID-19 as a “conspiracy” against religion. They repeatedly said that this virus is a “secular virus” that targets religious entities. Still, those remarks couldn’t alter the fact that science and the realities of life have taken priority over empty slogans and ideologies.

As recently as last week, Mehdi Nasiri, the former chief editor of the hardline Kayhan newspaper lambasted remarks by Ayatollah Alireza Arafi, a member of the powerful Guardian Council and head of Iran’s Islamic Seminaries. Arafi had said earlier that “seminary schools should be able to address the needs of 7 billion humans (on earth) and the necessary planning should be made in that respect.”

Nasiri referred to different problems and shortcomings that have plagued the country, including high inflation, class divisions, corruption and declining voter turnout. He questioned the logic behind Arafi’s assertions and urged religious authorities to offer “tangible outcomes” to the world, rather than making “such slogans and claims”.

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In another example, the short clips of medical staff in Hazmat suits and masks dancing to traditional Iranian music took the internet by the storm just a few weeks into the virus outbreak. Based on Iran’s constitution, dancing in public can be interpreted as an indecent act that could be punished. Dancing can be performed on stage in Iran, although only by men. However, the authorities could do nothing about those videos or chose not to take any immediate action. Even though state media later published numerous images and videos of nurses and doctors participating in prayers or religious activities to defuse the impact of the earlier dance videos, the reality was that COVID-19 helped medical workers, including women, dance to music without fear of being punished.

Employees wear protective face masks, at a testing centre for COVID-19, Tehran, Iran, May 20, 2020. Photo: WANA/Ali Khara via REUTERS

Moreover, the novel coronavirus pandemic brought back drive-in movies to Iran. A drive-in theatre that was once decried by revolutionaries for allowing “too much privacy” for unmarried young couples, opened in early May in Tehran, after 41 years. It screened a film in line with the views of hardliners. The Islamic Republic News Agency described the move as a turning point in the history of Iranian cinema after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The initiative even set a precedent for this model being used for religious ceremonies in different cities during the month of Ramadan.

One more promising sign was the decision by Iran’s judiciary to temporarily free thousands of prisoners, including political prisoners whose release human rights organisations have sought for a long time. The pandemic even revived prospects of talks over prisoner swaps between Iran, the US and the UK.

COVID-19 has been a disaster on a huge scale and its dimensions will be felt for a very long time. But economically, politically and socially, this disaster will lead to major changes and new ways of thinking.  For Iran, most of the country’s energy and resources this year will be devoted to containing the virus. So, while it may be too early to judge the mid- and long-term impact of the crisis on the country’s political and social landscape, many experts see the epidemic as a “determining factor” in shaping the future of Iran’s political sphere.

Mohammad Hashemi is a journalist and analyst of Iranian affairs based in Tehran. His twitter account is@mo_hashemi.