Sally Sharif, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, has said on multiple occasions since the COVID-19 outbreak that the country’s efforts to stop the spread of the virus have been met with nationwide acts of social dissent, emphasizing the pandemic would not end unless people follow official public health recommendations.[i] There are two broad categories of Iranians that willingly defied state directives, each for its own reason: one in its desire to engage in religious rituals, the other in its quest for freedom in the private sphere.
The religion enthusiasts stormed holy shrines and mosques despite directives to avoid congregating, while religious institutions refused to stop offering their services to the public. Despite orders by the Provincial Council, the holy shrine in Qom, the epicenter of the virus, refused to close its doors, arguing that holy sites are free of the virus, are places of healing, and cannot infect people. The second category of Iranians ignored state directives to stop domestic travel, especially during the Persian New Year holidays, to the extent that the military commander co-heading the Corona Control Task Force stopped travel in and out of Tehran by March 27th, putting the capital city under an informal quarantine.
How can such acts of social dissent be explained during a public health emergency? Why should citizens deliberately engage in behavior that jeopardizes their health and wellbeing? I offer a two-pronged explanation that takes into account both structure and agency. The failing call for “national unity” in the face of a pandemic and the outright defiance of state directives by Iranian citizens point to two plausible explanations of citizen conduct under an authoritarian regime: (1) the fragility of the authoritarian social contract, and (2) exploiting the weapons of the weak. The first framework applies to Iran’s religious conservatives and the second to dissenters.
There were, of course, countless Iranians that for various reasons had to leave their homes during the outbreak. This essay limits itself to explaining why those who could stay at home chose to congregate or travel, focusing on the particular conditions of the Islamic Republic shaped by an economic crisis and a recent wave of popular protest. While many in the United States also disregarded or blatantly challenged local or federal directives for mitigating the spread of COVID-19, the rule-breakers in North America acted under very different political circumstances. They might have operated under a general sense of American exceptionalism, trust in the US healthcare capabilities, or a generational trend—none of which was present among Iranians. The difference between democracies and autocracies is a matter of kind and not degree:[ii] citizens in an autocracy function under a constant risk of repression and their defiance of state laws has much graver consequences than for those seeing fit to spend their Spring Break in Miami or writing critiques of the US government’s handling of the epidemic in busy cafes of New York City.
Non-compliance in Iran among the ultra-religious institutions and citizens – the selectorate and the support base the regime appeals to and relies on for unconditional support – is not common. The regime does not depend on its support base for winning elections; rather, it relies on them for manifestations of support in the public sphere when it needs to demonstrate its popular legitimacy. The base includes people that turn up on Jerusalem Day (Quds Day) while fasting, sit on hot tarmac for Friday prayers held on the street in smaller cities, show up year after year at rallies commemorating the country’s Islamic Revolution, and go to the ballots fastidiously at every election. Some of the institutions that make up the selectorate and the regime’s support base, which usually behave the way they are expected to, stopped complying with state directives in the midst of a viral pandemic.
Opposition to state directives and regulations by religious conservatives points to a schism in what is commonly perceived as the reason for resilience in authoritarian rule – the authoritarian social contract. The social contract between an authoritarian regime and its citizens is supposed to create compliance with repressive laws and practices in exchange for security and prosperity. Acts of social dissent during a pandemic point to the fragility of the social contract between the authoritarian regime of Iran and its citizens: people refuse to respect authoritative social directives the moment the state loses its capacity to provide security and prosperity to the people.
From the point of view of the religious sector, the authoritarian social contract in Iran includes an extra service that the state is contracted to dispense – securing people’s rights to practice Islam freely and eliminating all symbols of non-religiosity from society. Iran is different in this sense from MENA countries, in its former experience being a secular state not imposed by foreign colonizing powers. The Iranian state’s contract with its support base includes guarantees of a specific kind of religious freedom – that which involves restriction of civil liberties for a large part of the Iranian population. Women, for instance, are obliged to cover in public in order to not offend the sensibilities of the ultra-religious or to bring them to sin.
Non-compliance with the state’s social distancing directives by those congregating for religious purposes points to the fragility of this social bond. Restricting religious practice is the last straw on the contract’s back. The state’s social base only follows state directives as long as it is given free reign in religious practice. The regime’s support base signaled a red line, beyond which it would end its support for state regulations.
Their defiance towards public health orders prompted a conciliatory reaction by the state. The state opted for appeasing its support base irrespective of the decision’s grave consequences for the public: the holy shrines remained open and the city of Qom, in spite of its economic insignificance, was not quarantined. The appeasement strategy continued until March 16th when the holy sites were temporarily closed. The holy places announced on their websites that the closures occurred due to pressure from the Corona Control Task Force, as they had been content to serve the worshippers with precautionary measures until then. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the state does not enjoy unconditional support from religious conservatives; rather, it would either have to appease them with extraordinary measures or, as I explain below, suppress them with the help of a newly constructed friend/enemy narrative.
Defiance unmotivated by religion
The second category of Iranians that ignored state warnings did so in order to continue with their supposedly private activities. They travelled around the country, especially to the beaches of the Caspian Sea, refused to close their businesses, and flocked to busy bazaars to shop for the Persian New Year festivities, while constantly critiquing the state for lack of transparency in informing the public about the virus when it first appeared in Qom and its unwillingness to quarantine the city. These acts of defiance can partly be explained as exploiting the weapons of the weak.
As theorized first in everyday forms of peasant resistance, this resistance mostly stops short of collective outright defiance and takes the form of dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, etc.[iii] As ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups faced with repressive laws of an authoritarian regime, the weapons of the weak give people agency in implicitly disavowing the regime’s public and symbolic goals. The state usually has an interest in keeping silent in the face of such acts, as the alternative would be admitting to unpopular policies or a tenuous authority over the population.
Exploiting the weapons of the weak, however, is only a partial explanation for defiant acts by non-religiously motivated citizens. Another important factor is the perceived lack of state authority in matters that are traditionally associated with the citizens’ private sphere. When authoritarian regulations only apply to conduct in the public sphere, as it does in Iran, citizens don’t need to act “as if” they are complying with the regulations in their private space. In fact, the private sphere becomes a place of respite where freedom of thought, speech, and action can be practiced in full. Once the divide is established, the state has little prospect of ensuring compliance with directives that are people’s “private” decisions: travelling, spending the Day of Nature in a park, going shopping for delicacies, or holding parties at home. Resisting authoritarian power in this sense is not necessarily directed at the immediate source of oppression, but is simply perceived as acting in one’s private sphere, the only space left for citizens to act willfully.
The role of the military
Faced with widespread defiance of state regulations to curb the spread of the virus and with the number of infected having mounted to 11,000 (according to national sources and the World Health Organization, WHO), the Iranian state resorted on March 13th to employing the armed forces, militarization of law enforcement, and restriction of civil liberties (see Graph 1). Unable to admit to the broken social contract with Iran’s citizens, the Head of the State called the outbreak a biological warfare waged by Iran’s enemies to destroy its population from within.
The armed forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), immediately apprehended critics of state performance in managing the viral outbreak, announced they would monitor all citizens via the Internet, telephone, or in person within the following 10 days, and promised to clear the streets of people. By March 27th, the Corona Control Task Force, now co-headed by an IRGC military commander, restricted inter-city and inter-province travel, with IRGC and Highway Patrol stopping non-local car plates from entering cities. Despite data from the WHO showing no dwindling in the numbers infected by the virus, Iran’s President has reported that the number of cases in some provinces has plateaued. Since the turn around on March 13th in state policy, official media outlets have repeatedly underscored the military’s assertive effort as the cause of the country’s overall improvement in dealing with the pandemic.
Graph 1. Prepared by the author using WHO data on the number of COVID-19 infected cases and deaths
Citizen reactions during social crises of this type point to potential holes in the robustness of the authoritarian social contract, and especially to the different forms that this contract takes with different sectors of society.
[i] Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), “[Rouhani Injecting Hope in the Combat with Corona],” March 22, 2002, https://tinyurl.com/wlnrndj.
[ii] Weeks, Jessica. 2014. Dictators at War and Peace. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
[iii] Scott, James. 1983. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.