COVID-19 after an “Annus Horribilis”

The Coronavirus in Iran after a “Horrible Year”

Iranian clerics wearing protective face masks attend the Friday prayers in Qarchak Jamee Mosque, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Tehran province, in Qarchak, Iran, June 12, 2020. Ali Khara/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters

Iran has emerged as one of the world’s epicenters of COVID-19 and the point of entry of the pandemic into the Middle East, with eighty percent of regional cases originating from the Islamic Republic. The spread of the disease has distinctly domestic and geopolitical roots—and is closely connected to the regime’s need (real or perceived) for internal and external support. Meanwhile, the collapse of public confidence toward the regime—deepened from the traumatic episodes Iranians had faced in the months leading up to the onset of the virus—has complicated the authorities’ response to the pandemic. All of this has coupled with the Islamic Republic’s inability to address its citizens’ ever-deeper socioeconomic malaise and concerns from top figures and official bodies about renewed yet more drastic unrest as a result of the pandemic’s economic impact.

COVID-19’s outbreak and Iranian authorities’ response has also been tied to the United States-led sanctions regime. The China connection at the heart of the virus’s initial spread in Iran is arguably the result ofnew patterns of dependency vis-à-vis non-Western powers as a way to counterbalance U.S. sanctions and Western pressure.

Many have claimed that it is United States’ sanctions that are preventing Tehran from having an effective response to the disease, especially when it comes to the shortage of medical equipment. Although sanctions do play a role on almost all conceivable levels, the combination of various other considerations has arguably had a bigger impact, most of which put the onus on Iran’s own authorities rather than outside sanctions.

Meanwhile, regime-stability concerns and the crisis of confidence between the state and society, as well as the leadership’s worries about an economic meltdown thereby risking a joint economic and health crisis, are key ingredients for the regime to have pursued an agenda of survival above everything else. This has resulted in prolonging the pandemic in the country and lessening the efficiency of anti-pandemic measures.

Annus horribilis: “They had hit our souls twice”

In order to better understand the comportment of both state and society in the present pandemic, the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis needs to be contextualized as it marked the final episode of an Iranian calendar year (ending on March 19) within what could be termed an annus horribilis.

At first, nationwide protests in November 2019, sparked by the overnight tripling of the fuel price, brought up to 200,000 people from the lower classes to the streets in the most significant anti-regime demonstrations in the four-decade history of the Islamic Republic. The regime responded with unprecedented brute force, killing up to 1,500 people in only four days during a near-total Internet shutdown. This episode sent shockwaves across Iranian society. The parliament—perhaps for the first time in its history—saw one MP likening the Islamic Republic with the “undignified Shah” and another calling the regime a “grim despotism”.

In the next episode, on January 3,  a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. For over twenty years, Soleimani had been the notorious incarnation of Iran’s expansive regional policies. His assassination was used by Tehran to create a nationalistic moment to consolidate a regime under immense pressure. The funerals held for Soleimani had, according to the regime, galvanized tens of millions on the streets in an unprecedented sign of national unity. Although these numbers of funeral attendees are likely exaggerated, the larger-than-usual crowds must be seen as a product of two combined factors: Soleimani’s relative popularity as well as state propaganda. 

Years of professional state propaganda had portrayed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander as a primarily patriotic—and not Islamist—hero. This narrative stressed that it was Soleimani’s strategic genius which protected Iranians’ national security by keeping the barbarity of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) away from the nation’s borders while helping to re-establish past imperial grandeur by expanding Iranian power and influence in an Arab-dominated region. Thus, the image of a slain hero Soleimani appealed to many Iranians’ nationalist sentiment and thirst for past glory. On these grounds, Soleimani enjoyed popularity beyond regime-sympathizing circles.

The role of state propaganda in mobilizing Iranians has been a fixture of government control over the populace in the past four decades. The Islamic Republic has mastered the art of creating images of state-sponsored mass mobilizations. To bring people to the streets, the state relies on both blackmail and reward

However, the regime’s effort at short-term consolidation was shattered overnight during “Operation Martyr Soleimani”—Iran’s revenge missile attack in Iraq for the IRCG general’s death. Ukrainian passenger jet 752 was shot down, killing all 176 onboard, 130 of whom were Iranians. For three days, Iranian authorities denied any responsibility in that incident. However, due to massive international pressure, the deception was finally broken, and the IRGC admitted to having committed this act.

For many Iranians, especially those in the middle class, the downing of the civilian airliner represented a shock. After all, in its revenge assault the regime had made sure, by warning Iraq and the United States of an impending strike, not to kill a single American soldier, which could have started a war between Iran and the United States and threatened the regime’s survival.

Iranian artists for the first time called en masse for boycotting the country’s most prestigious state-sponsored Fajr Film Festival, many of whom were then threatened by authorities to stop boycotting and attend the event. In the words of one artist (interviewed by German radio), “We all live so much for the moment, not knowing what tomorrow will bring. We live in dust, not being able to see the future.” A print journalist explained (in an Austrian radio feature) the reaction and general mood in the wake of the passenger jet shootdown: “In the editorial room, everybody was crying [….] Within a few months, they had hit our souls twice. This made us speechless.” 

Many Iranians bitterly realized that were it not due to international pressure, the authorities would have kept their responsibility for this tragedy hidden. The resulting new-found rage then led thousands of Iranians to take to the streets to protest against the regime, this time around with a focus on the IRGC and the possibility of military rule in the country. As such, at a crucial juncture, Iranians —right after the regime’s effort at short-term consolidation—made clear publically that their criticism of their ruling elite had remained intact.

And after these two traumatic episodes, a third one followed suit with the outbreak of the deadly novel coronavirus, soon accompanied by collapsing oil prices. In other words, the public health crisis reached Iran amid massive public discontent as a result of the two afore-mentioned events, the threat posed to regime survival by street mobilizations over the past two-and-a-half years, and amid unabated economic pressure by U.S.-led sanctions which helped plunge the economy into prolonged recession.

Epicenter Qom and the Chinese Connection

The genealogy of the coronavirus outbreak and spread reveals some disturbing priorities of the Iranian authorities. As was the case in China, Iran, too, has been accused of announcing the outbreak of the virus several weeks too late. Such deception of the Iranian public was a result of the regime’s political and geopolitical interests. Politically, the Iranian leadership needed to showcase public support at two crucial instances: one, the above-mentioned Soleimani funerals in January meant to consolidate the regime at a crucial time. And two, the parliamentary elections in February, for which the state initiated an extraordinary campaign that aimed to bring Iranians to the polling stations. 

Nonetheless, the get-out-the-vote campaign ended in a historically low turnout that was rationalized by the Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli referring to the two afore-discussed traumatic episodes (the November protests and the IRGC’s shooting-down of the jet). As the before-mentioned print journalist explained, “Many have decided not to vote, because they were disappointed in previous elections. They say voting wouldn’t change anything, so we won’t vote [.…] I have the impression that people are aware of the plan of the state, that it wants to lure people to the polling stations. But afterwards it won’t bother addressing people’s problems. This is why they don’t want to take part in this game anymore.”

Geopolitically, the Chinese connection seems to be a key reason behind the outbreak and spread of the virus in Iran. The Iranian epicenter of COVID-19 was Qom, the Shia “holy city”. Qom has a strong Chinese presence: from the construction of high-speed rail and subway infrastructures to an estimated seven hundred Chinese seminarians studying theology there. Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, also known as Shaikh Abdol-Hamid, the spiritual leader of Iran’s Sunni community, suggested that those Chinese students at Qom’s Al-Mustafa International University , an international Shia seminary involved in propagating the political ideology of the Islamic Republic, were at the root of the emergence of the virus in Iran. 

Moreover, in June 2019, Iran announced visa-free entry for Chinese nationals, which has boosted Chinese tourism in Qom and beyond. Crucially, at a time when Iran’s neighbors had halted their China flights and contrary to Iranian authorities’ announcement to follow suit, Mahan Air—affiliated with the IRGC—nevertheless continued operating fifty-five flights between Iran and several Chinese cities after its CEO had reportedly met with the Chinese ambassador to Tehran. 

Tehran’s willingness to maintain flights to China at a time when others had abandoned them is testament to new patterns of dependence in Iran’s relations with non-Western great powers. In many cases, as this particular example illustrates, Iran is acting from a position of weakness (i.e. a perceived or real need for China’s, or Russia’s, assistance against U.S. pressure) and suffers losses in bilateral ties. Whether the continuing flights were a sign of Iranian goodwill or anticipatory obedience toward China remains open for discussion.

The oversized role of China in Iran was on full display when, in early April, the spokesperson of Iran’s Health Ministry described China’s coronavirus statistics as a “bitter joke,” doubting that the disease was under control there. The spokesperson then had to backtrack on his comments after protestations by the Chinese ambassador and harsh reactions by hardliners. Iran’s Ambassador to China Mohammad Keshavarzadeh warned that “in this time of sanctions we need to be very careful about what is said about China in Tehran,” adding that those criticizing the bilateral relationship “do not wish well for the regime and the Iranian people”.

Iran’s hardliners, including the IRGC and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, are chief proponents of an Iranian “look to the East” orientation with China at its center, as they see their economic monopolies and political interests of “non-interference” best protected through closer ties with like-minded authoritarian states. Meanwhile, among many Iranians—especially the technocrats—China is viewed with much skepticism after Beijing had been flooding the Iranian market with low-quality products after repeated U.S.-pressured exits of European companies. The China connection in the spread of the COVID-19 virus has led various parts of the Iranian political elite to develop reservations on the close ties with Beijing. 

Yet, both countries have not only concealed the timing of the eruption of the disease and threatened those releasing non-state approved statistics to the public, but also engaged in the same conspiracy theory according to which COVID-19 is a biological weapon invented and deployed by the United States against them both. This has been a narrative echoed by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Iran’s Supreme Leader, and the new IRGC chief. On these grounds, Khamenei went on to reject humanitarian assistance offered to Iran by the United States for the fight against the virus, as he did with the Médecins Sans Frontières’ offer to build a treatment unit after it had been approved by Iran’s Health Ministry.

The Unclear Impact of Sanctions

Beyond the indirect role of U.S. sanctions in pushing Iran toward China, the impact of the sanctions regime on Iran’s ability to effectively fight the pandemic is both complex and controversial. Iran’s leadership has argued that sanctions are the primary reason for the rapid spread of the virus and people’s concomitant misery. In this vein, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif hyped up the rhetoric against the United States, moving from calling their sanctions “economic terrorism” to “medical terrorism”.

Iran has indeed been facing the most stringent sanctions regime, re-imposed by the United States after its unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018 and most effectively implemented on a global scale due to Washington’s unrivaled power in the financial and banking sectors. Although humanitarian goods are on paper exempted from U.S. sanctions, in many cases they are de facto treated as sanctioned items, since conducting any financial transactions with Iran is considered too risky by most banks.

Despite the sanctions’ practical impact upon procuring humanitarian and thus medical goods, there has been much controversy in Iran over the authorities’ responsibility. Critics have questioned Iranian politicians for their penchant to externalize responsibility for all kinds of shortcomings to outside forces and influences, above all sanctions. Moreover, they have pointed to authorities’ neglect of the health sector as well as corruption. 

Corruption, executed by groups connected to powerful entities (such as the IRGC, which has its own sea and air ports and controls Iran’s borders), has been a constant feature. These groups abuse the shortage of goods due to sanctions in various ways, monopolizing imports, and selling them at high prices—all the while situating their actions in a framework where sanctions serve as a handy excuse or legitimization for criminal and corrupt practices. In brief, in the ongoing sanctions saga, both Tehran and Washington need to put forward evidence for their respective theses—whether sanctions are preventing humanitarian aid or not.

Tehran’s Reactions to the Pandemic

Tehran tried to milk the COVID-19 crisis to put pressure on the United States and the European Union to lessen the burden of sanctions. The EU has reacted to this effort by initiating the first transaction via INSTEX with humanitarian goods, vowing to send €20 million in aid to Iran. International public opinion has been responsive to this form of Iranian corona diplomacy, yet it has failed to convince the Trump White House to change course and lessen the sanctions.  

From the beginning, public mistrust over the veracity of information released by the authorities and their overall crisis management—nurtured from the regime responses to the previously discussed events within Iran’s annus horribilis—has poisoned the efficiency of containment measures and people’s responsiveness to proposed measures. At first, Iran’s highest authorities labeled the virus as part of “negative propaganda” or a “pretext” to “discourage people from voting” (Supreme Leader Khamenei on February 23) or “one of the enemy’s plots to bring our country into closure by spreading panic” (President Rouhani on February 25). For instance, a government warning to stay home in the form of a March 17 fatwa issued by Khamenei advising against “unnecessary travel” was not fully abided to, thus complicating efforts toward flattening the spread of COVID-19. The lack of full adherence to such directives could be witnessed during the Iranian New Year (Norouz), when 3 million Iranians from thirteen provinces affected by the virus embarked on travels.

Despite successively imposed restrictions (such as closing schools, universities, government offices and workplaces, while restricting many social events and inter-city transportation) over two weeks in April, the country’s central authorities shied away from a total lockdown and quarantines, similar to those in China and other nations, and loosened restrictions, ahead of many other countries. 

The re-openings in late April, when ministry employees were ordered to return to work and many Iranians (assured by Tehran that the pandemic was under control) resumed daily life, quite predictably paved the way for a new surge of infections by May that has later also engulfed the southern provinces and has doubled the daily infection rate of the lockdown period. In July, a Coronavirus Combat Task Force member said that every fifth Iranian had been infected, with the total death toll exceeding 12,000.

An early August BBC Persian investigation, according to hospital-admission and medical records leaked to the BBC by an anonymous source, suggested that Iran’s coronavirus deaths is triple the official number, while the number of infections is double (451,000 versus 278,800). Up to July 20, while the Health Ministry had put the number of total deaths at 14,405, the government’s own records report almost 42,000 Iranians deaths by the virus. 

According to those sources, the first COVID-19 death case occurred on January 22, and not a month later (February 19) as officially claimed, by which time fifty-two people had already died from the virus. The revelation confirms widespread doubts over the Iranian authorities’ figures and their deliberate deception despite records to the contrary. It also reconfirms the thesis laid out earlier that such deception may have indeed been politically motivated as to make sure people would mobilize for the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and the parliamentary elections in February. In addition, according to the BBC, Iranian medical “doctors with direct knowledge of the matter” have said the Health Ministry has been under pressure from security and intelligence bodies that were seeking to hide the existence of COVID-19 in the country.

Within the administration, the outbreak of the virus had created a controversy around the question of whether to risk economic meltdown by enforcing and extending appropriate public health measures (supported by the Health Ministry) or to save the economy through what experts warned to be a premature lifting of containment policies (supported by President Rouhani). The former camp had, in retrospect quite correctly, argued that abandoning policies of social distancing too early will produce a combined economic and health crises. 

As in some other countries, Iran’s class divide has structured people’s responses to the virus from those self-quarantining in Tehran’s affluent north to those continuing to leave the house for work, with overcrowded public transport, as in the capital’s poor south. The latter group effectively faces the stark choice between risking to die from the virus or from poverty. On April 11, the deputy health minister said that one-fourth of those infected with the virus had contracted it in public transport. 

Iran’s already ailing economy is now further hit by a new triple crisis: a dual, economic-cum-health crisis, exacerbated by the economic damage from the coronavirus and the dramatic decline in oil prices. According to the deputy head of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, every day of business closures costs an estimated $164 million. The service sector, generating around half of Iran’s GDP, has been severely hit, with small businesses like taxi drivers and shops facing bankruptcy. Also, the tourism sector—with Chinese being a core group—has been undermined, leading to job losses. Iran’s regional trade, accounting for half of its total exports, has been massively hit, with almost all borders closed and in- and outbound flights halted for months.

Even before this year’s fall of the oil price—reaching below $20 per barrel in April, now stabilizing at around $40 and expected to remain below $60 throughout next year—Iran’s oil exports were already decimated due to U.S. sanctions. According to Iran’s Vice-President Es’haq Jahangiri, last year Iran’s oil revenue amounted to $8 billion dollars—a massive collapse from the pre-sanctions level of around $100 billion.

In his March 20 Norouz speech, Khamenei chose the motto of “surge in production” for the new year—barely a change with the old year’s motto of “boosting production”. He said that last year’s efforts toward boosting production had only accomplished one-tenth of what Iran needed and highlighted boosting domestic production and consumption. To alleviate some of the mounting economic burden on the economy, the president announced a loan program worth $17.4 billion for companies and promised support payments of $230 each for 23 million poor households, with the IRGC distributing food among the poor in some neighborhoods of the capital. 

Yet, as is the case with many of such government promises of aid, its implementation as well as efficacy remains a big question. The pandemic, according to official accounts, has negatively impacted the employment of at least 7 million Iranians. Such socioeconomic fallouts have led to dramatic warnings of renewed and more intense street protests, voiced by all regime factions, the Majles Research Center, and fifty economists, who wrote a letter to Rouhani warning that the deteriorating economic situation might fuel unrest later in the year.

Securitization of the Disease and Post-Pandemic Iran

As in other autocracies, there are concerns over a potential abuse of the health crisis for securitization purposes. The IRGC with its various components, including medical centers, are—together with the Health Ministry—at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. To this end, the IRGC has been trying to repair its image after the January shooting-down of the Ukranian airline flight 752 by portraying itself as an efficient bulwark in the fight against the virus. This attempt, however, is likely to dissipate amid an overall angry response of the public to the government’s mishandling of the pandemic. 

For autocracies worldwide, the pandemic is a double-edged sword: on one hand, they might see a golden opportunity to securitize and criminalize social movements and public protests, thus extinguishing the fires of revolutionary protests raging over the region over the past year or two, as some warn that COVID-19 will prove to be “anti-movement, anti-activism, anti-assembly”. 

While this may be the case as long as the pandemic rages, the severe socioeconomic and economic fallouts from the virus together with pre-existing structural grievances fueling protests in Iran and beyond are creating an accumulated and aggravating set of crises that is prone to lead to not only renewed but more intense street protests, and perhaps food riots, further down the road. In brief, once the crisis subsides, revolts by the poorer classes are likely to re-emerge.

And indeed, in mid-July, anti-regime protests have resurfaced in Iran, with arrests conducted by the IRGC. They started on July 16 in Behbahan, Khuzestan province, and reached Shiraz, Isfahan, Rasht, Mashhad, Tabriz and Urumiyeh by the next day. According to Behbahan’s police chief talking to an official news agency, “a small number of people” demonstrated against the current economic situation in the country. According to other outlets, people chanted, “Neither for Gaza, nor for Lebanon, I give my life to Iran” and “Have no fear, we are all together,” echoing protest slogans of the past. 

In some cities, people were also chanting slogans against Supreme Leader Khamenei as well as the Rouhani administration. According to Iranian activists on social media, the protesters’ rage was primarily directed at the country’s economic misery, but also against the death sentences approved by Iran’s highest court against three protesters in their mid-twenties who took part in last November’s nationwide upheaval. 

Preceding these renewed street protests was an online campaign called “edâm nakonid” (“don’t execute”), which on July 14 became the most used Twitter hashtag worldwide. The harsh sentences can be seen as a warning from the regime toward the people who want to re-engage in mass protests. In Khuzestan, the oil-rich province in the south-west that disproportionately suffers from multiple crises and as a result has been a hotbed of protests over the past two and a half years, the internet was shut down after protest initiators had called for demonstrations via social media. As previously noted, given the deteriorating economic situation and the state’s insufficient responses, a resurgence of protests could be expected.

It is precisely the background of Iran’s past annus horribilis that allows us to properly contextualize the pandemic and help identify how things may play out in its wake. The state’s response to the coronavirus has been affected by the Iranian leadership’s prioritization of regime-stability over public health, which has resulted in a chaotic mismanagement of the crisis and aggravated the level of public mistrust. The Iranian regime has shown an inability to provide answers to this ever-deepening socioeconomic malaise, paired by macro-economic woes, which together constitute an explosive mix that could pit a traumatized and pauperized population against an increasingly militarized power structure.

Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a German–Iranian political scientist, is Iran expert with the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (AUB-IFI), where he publishes a report entitled Iran in Focus. He is also the author of the much-acclaimed book Iran in an Emerging New World Order (2021). Twitter: @AFathollahNejad

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