Iran 2020: A tumultuous year in review

For many Iranians, it already felt like things could hardly get worse only days after 2020 started.

“We wash away blood with more blood. We pile suffering upon suffering. It’s as if history has been compressed,” a group of students at the Amir Kabir University in Tehran said in a statement released in early January.

Less than two months before, protests that erupted across Iran after the price of gasoline tripled overnight were violently quashed, and 230 people died, according to the authorities.

But that student statement was published after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mistakenly shot down – with two missiles – a commercial aircraft operated by Ukraine Airlines over Tehran on January 8, 2020.

The aircraft, which carried mostly Iranians, many of whom held dual nationalities, was downed hours after the IRGC fired missiles at two United States military bases in Iraq.

The country was on high alert in anticipation of a potential US reprisal, leading to the deadly mistake, authorities said at the time.

The night-time attack on US interests – which bore no death – was itself a response to the January 3 assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander and the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force which handles operations abroad.Soleimani had just landed in Baghdad airport when a drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump destroyed his convoy, also killing several others, including a senior Iraqi commander. 

Soleimani’s images were seen at every turn all over Iran for the proceeding days which also saw millions pour out into the streets across the country to mourn the general and condemn his assassination.

So many people gathered to see his body taken through his hometown Kerman that dozens died in a gruesome stampede.

Tensions between Iran and the US had been steadily on the rise during the hawkish Trump administration, which unilaterally abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and imposed harsh economic sanctions.

But the assassination of the man whose power and influence was thought to be only second to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, blew tensions out of proportions.

The threat of direct military conflict hung heavy but never materialised, instead, translating into more friction and proxy conflicts in Iraq and beyond.

Iranian vessels came close to US ships in the Gulf in April, the US seized four Iranian vessels carrying fuel to fellow US-sanctioned Venezuela in August, and Iran issued an arrest warrant for Trump and dozens of other US officials for killing Soleimani in late June.

The US has also slammed several Iranian military efforts, including the launch of the country’s first military satellite, the unveiling of new missiles, and holding annual war games.

Khamenei reminded the world last week that Iran is still looking to avenge Soleimani in addition to seeking the full withdrawal of US troops in Iraq, but said it will happen “at the right time”.

COVID-19 and the economy

What ended up killing tens of thousands of Iranians and affecting the lives of millions more was not a war, but the novel coronavirus.

After weeks of speculation and denied reports, Iran finally confirmed in late February that COVID-19 had entered the country by abruptly announcing the first confirmed deaths of the deadly virus in the Middle East.

Iran has since seen three major waves of infections during the pandemic that has killed close to 54,000 and infected more than 1.1 million people. Health authorities say real numbers could be more than double the official figures.The administration of President Hassan Rouhani has imposed two major lockdowns and several partial shutdowns throughout the pandemic.


A full lockdown was imposed in parts of March and April and another major shutdown affected hundreds of cities across Iran for two weeks in November.

Iranian officials have said the US is actively trying to block the country’s efforts to buy a vaccine through a global initiative operating under the World Health Organization (WHO).

The US has also blocked Iran’s request for a $5bn emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund to combat the deadliest pandemic of the Middle East.

But in some ways, COVID-19 did what Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign could not as it shut borders and hugely affected non-oil exports that were on the rise in absence of significant oil exports.

Even before the pandemic, Iran’s economy was shrinking and its national currency, the rial, was in free-fall due to US sanctions. But the rial hit a nadir of 320,000 per US dollar in October while it was being traded for 40,000 before the sanctions.

But on the back of economic resilience and hopes that President-elect Joe Biden will revitalise the nuclear deal and lift sanctions, the economy is gradually stabilising and the rial has recovered to 250,000 against the greenback.

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