Polarization, COVID-19, and Authoritarian Consolidation in Iran

Vahid Abedini, Florida International University

The COVID-19 pandemic began in Iran at a time when the Iranian government was facing serious challenges, including severe foreign pressures, divided political elites, sociopolitical polarization, and widespread antigovernment protests.[1]Comparing how the 14th-century Black Death resulted in the collapse of the feudal system, some observers anticipated that the COVID-19 pandemic would result in the end of the current religious government in Iran.[2] But Iran’s Supreme Leader’s sided with the scientists instead of the religious sector, especially in ordering the closure of religious sites and vaccinations. Not only did the Islamic Republic not face the legitimacy crisis of the medieval church but took advantage of the crisis to consolidate all branches of power in the hand of the most loyal forces. This paper discusses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran. In line with the trends in democratic backsliding in a lot of countries around the world, especially the Middle East, Iran devolved into further autocratization. In both parliamentary and presidential elections held during the pandemic, voter turnout dropped below the 50 percent level for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, which dealt a major blow to the institution of election as the most important democratic element in Iran’s hybrid regime.

Polarized Society: The Tension between Tradition and Modernity

Iran has been embroiled in a conflict between tradition and modernity for the past century, and at times has experienced moments of high polarization. The political conflicts that emerged between constitutionalists and monarchists in the early 20th century, along with the outbreak of World War I and the Persian famine of 1917–1919, resulted in the emergence of authoritarianism under Reza Shah. The conflict between the secular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the religious leader Ayatollah Kashani and the economic crisis sparked by the global boycott of Iranian oil in the early 1950s paved the way for the 1953 coup and Mohammad Reza Shah’s authoritarian rule. After the 1979 Revolution, conflicts between Islamists and Marxists/liberals and the Iran-Iraq war led to the suppression of Marxists and liberals by Islamists and authoritarianism in the 1980s. Homa Katouzian calls this repetitive cycle of instability and authoritarianism “arbitrary rule-chaos-arbitrary rule” and argues that in a time of chaos, Iranians demand a more powerful ruler who can end the division and instability and “bring peace, stability and better material standards establishing a new arbitrary state.”[3]Following Katouzian’s theory, this paper argues that the increase in tensions and insecurities in recent years and the COVID-19 crisis have paved the way for further autocratization.

In the past decade, especially with worsening economic and foreign relations crises and the emergence of social media, socio-political tensions have been increasing in Iranian society. The Green Movement that arose after the controversial 2009 elections is one example of high political polarization in Iranian society in which social media played an important role. Despite the decrease in polarization after the election of moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2013, conflicts began to increase during Rouhani’s second term (2017- 2021). One reason for this could be the dramatic expansion of Internet availability and the use of social media during the Rouhani era, especially in small cities and towns and among the lower classes. Another reason is the Trump administration’s campaign of maximum pressure on Iran, which resulted in a great economic crisis and gave Iranian advocates for regime change hope that these outside pressures would lead to the fall of the government. Some research suggests that during Trump’s presidency, social media, used by the exiled opposition, played an important role in organizing antigovernment protests.[4] In response, the Iranian government attempted to prevent the influence of these social media campaigns by creating a cyber army. As a result, the Persian-language social media became highly polarized during the Trump administration and the conflicts between center and periphery increased.[5] These conflicts peaked in late 2019.

Gas Protests, Soleimani, and the Downing of Ukraine’s Plane

On the eve of the arrival of COVID-19, three important events in less than two months greatly widened sociopolitical gaps and increased instabilities in Iran.  First, in November 2019, protests erupted in more than one hundred Iranian cities, incited by a sudden increase in the price of gasoline. The government violently suppressed the protests, leaving hundreds dead, and shut down the Internet across the entire country for some days to control the protests. These protests were a stronger version of the December 2017-January 2018 protests, which were triggered by hardliners against the economic policies of the Rouhani administration, but quickly turned into anti-government demonstrations in more than a hundred cities. These two waves of protests indicated important facts about the legitimacy and base of supporters of the Islamic Republic. If the 2009 Green Movement protests were by the urban middle classes of Tehran concerned with civil and political liberties, the 2017-2019 protests were considered “the revolt of the middle-class poor” living on the periphery, cities, and provincial towns. These protests were sparked by anger over the economy—especially unemployment, inflation, and rising inequality “produced by a neoliberal age.”[6] The violent repression of these two waves of protest, especially in 2019, effectively discredited the reformist-backed Rouhani administration in the eyes of some of its supporters. It also dramatically widened the gap between the government and the people, or center and periphery, and added a horizontal polarization of oppressed/oppressors to the already vertically polarized society.

Second, two months later, the killing of Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani by the United States and its aftermath ‌roiled Iranian politics by revealing deep sociopolitical divisions, especially in social media, and polarization in Iranian society reached an unprecedented level. Amid the tensions that followed this killing, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane that had taken off from the Tehran airport, killing 178 passengers and crew. Initially, Iranian aviation authorities denied that the plane had been shot down, but a few days later the IRGC admitted that it had shot down the plane, mistaking it for a cruise missile. This revelation sparked public outrage and street protests, especially from more modern segments of society. The victims on the Ukrainian plane were mostly Iranian students and graduates who lived in Canada. Symbolically, Soleimani and the victims on the Ukrainian plane were important to each pole of society: more religious, traditional, and anti-Western segments mourned for Soleimani, while more modern and pro-Western segments mourned for the victims.

The Arrival of COVID-19 and Parliamentary Elections

With the Iranian government facing widespread protests with an almost bankrupt economy due to draconian economic sanctions, one could anticipate that the COVID-19 pandemic could be the last straw for the Islamic Republic. While the Iranians were still in shock, news of the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading. Iranian authorities initially denied that the pandemic had entered Iran, but finally, on February 19, 2020, they confirmed the first infections. Three days after the announcement, with the public preoccupied with the pandemic, parliamentary elections were held, with the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic.[7] General discontent and the panic caused by the pandemic were instrumental in reducing turnout. In the absence of the active participation of reformists in the elections because of their high rate of disqualifications by the Guardian Council, the Principlists (hardline supporters of the regime) won an unprecedented majority of seats in parliament. The more hardline parliament put opposition to Hassan Rouhani’s moderate government on its agenda. For example, when U.S. President Joe Biden came to office, the parliament passed a bill forcing Iran to ratchet up its nuclear activities, thus eliminating any possibility of reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the “Iran nuclear deal,” from which President Trump withdrew in 2018) during Rouhani’s remaining time.

With the identification of the first cases of COVID-19 in Qom, the religious capital of Iran, the Iranian government found itself in the middle of the tradition/modernity conflict. On the one hand, the more religious sectors insisted on continuing religious rituals despite the pandemic by emphasizing the healing impact of religious sites. On the other hand, the more modern sectors of Iranian society, in the polarized atmosphere of 2020, could not easily trust the government and its ability to manage the crisis.[8] Religious forces initially opposed the closure of religious sites during the pandemic. On February 26, 2020, the chief custodian of the Qom holy shrine stressed the healing impact of the shrine and ruled out the possibility of closing it.[9]

The Islamic Republic tried to stand in the middle of the tradition/modernity split and grabbed the opportunity to present itself as the only force for stability and order in times of crisis. Ayatollah Khamenei recorded a video with Alireza Marandi, president of Iran’s Academy of Medical Sciences and his trusted physician, acknowledging the “outstanding work” of doctors and nurses.[10] In the following days, he called the activities of doctors and nurses a “jihad for God” and called those who lost their lives in service to patients “martyrs for health.”[11] In all these messages, he emphasized the importance of full observance of the recommendations and instructions issued by medical specialists and experts. Ayatollah Khamenei’s support for scientific methods in the fight against COVID-19 blocked the way for opposition from traditional and religious forces, and the government closed all religious sites. In August 2021, Ayatollah Khamenei insisted that “the rules should be followed carefully” in the reopening of religious rites.[12] His support for the vaccine also blocked religious sectors from opposing vaccination, and as a result, more than 90 percent of the country’s target population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. With 77%, Qom had the lowest vaccination rate, which confirms the resistance of parts of religious sectors to vaccination.[13]

Despite initial distrust, the modern sector of Iranian society supported the government in fighting the pandemic. Due to economic restraints caused by the US sanctions, the government could not adopt and enforce full quarantine measures, but in March 2020 with the arrival of the Iranian New Year holidays, the government implemented a travel ban for two weeks and successfully managed the first wave of COVID-19. Extensive quarantine would not have been possible without the support of large sectors of society, especially celebrities and the more modern and middle-class sectors. This level of support from the society, particularly from the more modern segments, even surprised Iranian authorities. Ayatollah Khamenei said that “no one could believe that people would not observe the Sizdah Bedar”[14] (a festival in which people usually spend the day out in the parks, because based on an old Iranian belief it is bad luck to stay at home). The fact that people complied with the quarantine rules and stayed at home on this day and did not perceive this order as an anti-Persian move by the Islamists demonstrates that the COVID-19 crisis built trust in the government among large sectors of society and helped to bridge the previous wide gap between the government and the people. Some polls after the first COVID-19 wave also showed increased confidence and satisfaction with the government’s performance.[15]

In the early days of COVID-19 in 2020, two series of videos went viral on Iranian social media. One series showed people licking the shrines of the Imams, to indicate that the holy shrines could not be infected and oppose their closure. The other series, showing doctors and nurses dancing, was released to inspire the people and create public solidarity among the nation. Contrary to the initial perception of the reaction of the religious government, the Islamic Republic arrested the religious “lickers”[16] and did not react negatively to the medical staffs’ dance videos. This difference in behavior showed that the government recognized the need for modern sectors of society to overcome the pandemic crisis and that it was willing to back down from some of its positions to gain people’s trust. One month later police also arrested some individuals who claimed to treat COVID-19 with “Islamic medicine,” by recommending remedies like “camel urine” or “the perfume of the Prophet.”[17]

Eastern versus Western Vaccines

Despite the Rouhani administration’s initial success in controlling the COVID-19 crisis and the general coordination of government institutions, the issue of vaccinations reopened the conflict, leading to a rift between pro-West and pro-East elites. In the last two decades, Iran’s political elite has been divided into two camps: reformists in favor of improving relations with Europe and the United States, and Principalists in pursuing a “Pivot to the East” policy to cultivate ties with China and Russia.

The Rouhani administration had difficulty purchasing vaccines during President Trump’s administration. Trump had opposed Iran’s request for a loan from the World Trade Organization, and Iran was struggling to buy the vaccine because of US sanctions. After Biden’s election victory, there was hope that these obstacles would be eased. The purchase of the vaccine could have given credit to Rouhani’s pro-Western government and been effective in the 2021 Iranian election. The Biden administration could also use the vaccine to influence negotiations with Iran. However, on February 8, 2021, Ayatollah Khamenei declared that he did not trust the American, British, and French vaccines and banned the import of coronavirus vaccines from these countries.[18] Also, the United States lifted vaccine sanctions the day before the 2021 presidential election, too late for the Rouhani administration.

Given these circumstances, the administration was forced to go to Russia and China to buy the vaccine. When Iran bought the Sputnik V vaccine, the Iranian Medical Association proclaimed that it considered the Russian vaccine “unjustified and dangerous.”[19] This conflict between institutions in charge severely damaged the Rouhani administration’s credibility for resolving the pandemic. Some observers believe that the sabotage of the efforts to import vaccines was politically motivated to discredit reformists and moderates and defeat them in the 2021 presidential election. They argue that the ban was lifted after Ebrahim Raisi came to power.[20] Following Raisi’s inauguration, Ayatollah Khamenei ordered that “the vaccine must be provided to all people in any way possible.”[21] In practice, after Raisi’s inauguration, with large imports of vaccines, public vaccination was carried out quickly. Explaining the Rouhani government’s inability to import the vaccine, a former lawmaker familiar with the details of the vaccine purchase said that the import ban was not limited to France, Britain, and the United States, and that it “practically tied the hands of officials to import the Astra-Zeneca vaccine.” He cites China’s good relations with the Raisi administration as another important factor and believes that after the change of administration in Iran, the Chinese “provided vaccines more easily.”[22]

The West’s inability to control the COVID-19 crisis was another issue that was widely used in Iranian government propaganda. Referring to the high number of deaths in the West due to the pandemic, Ayatollah Khamenei said, “If their Pfizer manufacturer can make a vaccine, why do they want to give it to us? Well, they should use it themselves so that they do not have so many deaths.”[23] He also praised the solidarity among the Iranian people in the fight against COVID-19 and compared it with the Western countries, where “people fight over a few rolls of toilet paper.” Despite the devastating sanctions which affected Iran’s capacity to respond to health crises,[24] Iran managed to distribute essential goods and people did not experience shortages.

COVID-19 and the 2021 Election

The presidential election was not different from the parliamentary election, with disqualifications of moderate candidates, an unprecedented low turnout, and a decisive victory for hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi. One of the most important factors in the low turnout was the failure of the Rouhani government to solve the country’s problems. The idea strengthened among reformist supporters that if the various components of government were under the control of the Principlists and the government became more cohesive, it would be more possible to solve the country’s problems. Ahmad Zeidabadi, a critic of the Islamic Republic, opposed the participation of reformists in the election and emphasized that “the political system in the country should become unified…the continuation of this dichotomy in the political system and decision-making of the country has wasted all resources in recent years.”[25] Principlists’ sabotage of the Rouhani administration’s efforts to import vaccines or revive the JCPOA was seen as an example of this divided political authority.

Low turnout in Iranian elections has always meant the defeat of reformists and moderates. The COVID-19 pandemic played an important role in low turnout. A poll one month before the election found that nearly one-third of those who were dubious about voting said that a decrease in the pandemic would have a big impact on their decision to vote.[26]Research shows that rallies and street campaigns have always played an important role in high turnout and the victory of reformists in Iran.[27] In the 2021 election, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, reformists were forced to limit their campaigns to social media, which dealt a severe blow to their campaigns.


As discussed by Abouzzohour in this volume, “the global health crisis empowered autocrats to take on extraordinary powers and carry out different types of violations of democratic norms.” The COVID-19 pandemic helped Iranian authoritarians to consolidate their power and weaken the electoral institution more than ever. Both parliamentary (2020) and presidential (2021) elections were held in the situation that, for the first time in the Islamic Republic, the majority of eligible voters did not participate. In the presidential election, not only did the Guardian Council disqualify all the key reformists’ candidates, but they also disqualified Ali Larijani, the former speaker of parliament and a moderate candidate. Autocrats easily removed the reformists and moderates from power without any serious resistance. All power is now completely in the hands of the Principlists, and they benefit from the global energy crisis after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This situation may pave the way for structural changes, including transition to a parliamentary system and a new supreme leader, to secure their power in the long-term prospect.

However, in the first step to reverse the Rouhani administration’s accomplishment in expanding internet freedom, they have faced strong public opposition to the so-called “Protection Bill,” an internet restrictions bill. The end of the epidemic may be the end of the honeymoon of the authoritarians. While on June 2, 2022, for the first time in 2 years, Iran reported zero deaths from COVID-19,[28] the public protests have started to become a new normal. The Raisi administration’s inability to solve the economic crises and disappointment with the revival of JCPOA and the lifting of sanctions has resulted in a new wave of protests. In recent weeks, strikes and protests by workers and teachers and public protests, especially in Khuzestan province, have increased.

With the end of the health crisis, the divided society might revive the duality in the Islamic Republic again. The 2023 elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts and the 2025 presidential election might show how much the COVID-19 pandemic was a blessing for Iranian authoritarians.

[1] Daniel Dana, “Does Iran’s COVID catastrophe signal the fall of the regime?” Jerusalem Post, October 23, 2021, https://www.jpost.com/opinion/does-irans-covid-catastrophe-signal-the-fall-of-the-regime-opinion-682888

[2] Shahir Shahid Sales, “Corona crisis and the possibility of political and social developments in Iran,” BBC Persian, March 15, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/persian/iran-features-51890764.

[3] Homa Katouzian, “Arbitrary Rule: A Comparative Theory of State, Politics and Society in Iran,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 24, no. 1 (May 1997): 67.

[4] Arash Davari et al., “Roundtable: Iran’s Domestic Politics and Political Economy,” Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative, December 2, 2019, https://mespi.org/2019/12/02/roundtable-irans-domestic-politics-and-political-economy-part-2.

[5] Mohammad Rahbari, “The Iranian polarized society and the role of social media in intensifying it,” IRNA, January 27, 2020, https://www.irna.ir/news/83649213.

[6] Asef Bayat, “The Fire That Fueled the Iran Protests,” The Atlantic, January 27, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/iran-protest-mashaad-green-class-labor-economy/551690.

[7] “Analysis of social media,” February 25, 2020, https://t.me/socialMediaAnalysis/251

[8] Mahsa Alimardani and Mona Elswah, “Trust, Religion, and Politics: Coronavirus Misinformation in Iran,” Meedan, June 23, 2020, https://meedan.com/reports/trust-religion-and-politics-coronavirus-misinformation-in-iran.

[9] “The shrine should be open,” Hamshahri, February 26, 2020, https://www.hamshahrionline.ir/news/487281.

[10] “Video message addressed to the medical community,” khamenei.ir, February 27, 2020, https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=45038.

[11] “The correct look at the corona,” khamenei.ir, March 30, 2020, https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=45271.

[12] “TV message about COVID pandemic,” khamenei.ir, August 11, 2021, https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=48469.

[13] “Qom is still at the bottom of the COVID-19 vaccination rate,” Tabnak, April 17, 2022, https://www.tabnak.ir/fa/news/1114082.

[14] “TV speech on the occasion of the birth of Imam-e zaman,” khamenei.ir, April 9, 2020, https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=45317.

[15] Arash Nasr Esfahani, “Maybe we are getting used to it,” ISPA, May 20, 2020, http://ispa.ir/Default/Details/fa/2198.

[16] Rozina Sini & Armen Shahbazian, “Coronavirus: Iran holy-shrine-lickers face prison,” BBC, March 30, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-51706021.

[17] Mahsa Alimardani and Mona Elswah, “Trust, Religion, and Politics: Coronavirus Misinformation in Iran,” Meedan, June 23, 2020, https://meedan.com/reports/trust-religion-and-politics-coronavirus-misinformation-in-iran.

[18] Parisa Hafezi, “Iran leader bans import of U.S., UK COVID-19 vaccines, demands sanctions end,” Reuters, January 8, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-iran-int/iran-leader-bans-import-of-u-s-uk-covid-19-vaccines-demands-sanctions-end-idUSKBN29D0YC.

[19] “We are concerned about the selection, approval, and purchase of the Russian vaccine,” Iranian Medical Association, January 31, 2021, https://irimc.org/news/id/46223.

[20] Mostafa Tajzadeh, Twitter post, August 12, 2012, 9:57 p.m., https://twitter.com/mostafatajzade/status/1426045321616973828.

[21] “The vaccine must be provided to all people, in any way possible,” The Office of the Supreme Leader, August 11, 2021, https://www.leader.ir/en/content/25204.

[22] Shahrzad Hemati, “Vaccine imports replaced vaccine production policy,” Shargh, September 14, 2021, https://www.magiran.com/article/4217988.

[23] Yasna Haghdoost, “Iran Bans US, UK Covid-19 Vaccines in Feud with West,” Bloomberg, January 8, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-08/khamenei-bans-u-s-u-k-covid-19-vaccines-amid-feud-with-west.

[24] Ghanbari, Mahboubeh Khaton et al. “Assessing Iran’s health system according to the COVID-19 strategic preparedness and response plan of the World Health Organization: health policy and historical implications.” Journal of preventive medicine and hygiene vol. 61,4 E508-E519. 14 Jan. 2021, doi:10.15167/2421-4248/jpmh2020.61.4.1613

[25] “The fate of the relationship with the new US administration,” Etemad, November 10, 2020, https://www.etemadonline.com/9/444288.

[26] “People’s attitudes towards the presidential election,” ISPA, May 15, 2021, http://ispa.ir/Default/Details/fa/2301.

[27] Kadivar, Mohammad Ali, and Vahid Abedini. 2019. “Electoral Activism in Iran: A Mechanism for Political Change.” SocArXiv. January 30. doi:10.31235/osf.io/ukycp.

[28] Syed Zafar Mehdi, “For 1st time in 2 years, Iran reports zero deaths from COVID-19,” Anadolu Agency, June 2, 2022, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/latest-on-coronavirus-outbreak/for-1st-time-in-2-years-iran-reports-zero-deaths-from-covid-19/2604135.