The Coronavirus and Iran's Political Reckoning

 /  June 10, 2020, 3:17 p.m.


Iran Hospital
Coronavirus patients at the Iman Khomeini Hospital in Tehran, Iran

As Iran began to reopen in April, shops opened their doors, people commuted to work in cities, and daily life resumed. “Medium risk” businesses drew people from their homes, clogging streets that were nearly empty just weeks before. Though health officials cautioned that reopening Iran would allow for the spread of the coronavirus, leading to more death, the government downplayed the risk of infection and emphasized Iran’s success in addressing the crisis. 

As of late May, Iran had reported over 122,000 cases of the coronavirus and approximately 7,000 deaths attributable to the disease. The real numbers are likely much higher, according to health experts both inside and outside of Iran. The coronavirus has spread quickly throughout the Middle East, particularly impacting Iran. 

Iran reported the first death due to the coronavirus in February. Prior to that announcement, there was very little testing in Iran, as in other countries, and little awareness of the potential consequences of the virus. The first major outbreak in the Middle East was in Qom, Iran, a holy city and popular site for Muslim pilgrimages. It was estimated in March that 90 percent of the coronavirus cases in the region could be traced back to Qom. Furthermore, Iran did not halt travel to and from China until mid-February, just before announcing its first case later that month. Several weeks ago, Iran opened after a strict lockdown. However, the country has seen a massive second wave of cases since the easing of restrictions in late April

The coronavirus has had an outsized impact on Iran. Prior to the outbreak, Iran was already in financial distress, as evidenced by currency devaluation and higher gas and living costs after the implementation of US sanctions. This distress generated popular discontent, culminating in widespread protests in the fall of 2019 after gas prices increased. The coronavirus has only compounded Iran’s economic crisis. The country has yet to receive an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fight the virus, for which officials have repeatedly blamed the United States, and many Iranians are struggling.

It is clear that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime has failed to protect its citizens. This failure, in addition to past unrest, distrust of the government, and economic and medical strain, spells revolution. However, it remains to be seen whether authoritarian, fundamentalist organizations, or reformist forces will prevail in the coming conflict. 

Medical and Economic Failure 

In late February, Iran had the highest coronavirus mortality rate in the world. Since the outbreak began in the holy city of Qom, a widely visited shrine, pilgrims spread the virus as they traveled back home. 

Before the announcement of the first coronavirus death in Iran, doctors treated patients exhibiting life-threatening symptoms, but after reporting these cases to the health ministry, they were told to stay quiet. Medical professionals were also ordered not to wear proper protective equipment even when available. Iranian medical professionals have reported a “severe” shortage of medical equipment. Iranian healthcare systems are generally ill-equipped to deal with the coronavirus, particularly the deadly second wave of cases that has swept the country after reopening. 

However, the official rhetoric refuted this reality. Interior Minister Mohammad-Reza Rahmani-Fazli said in a statement that “there is no shortage in the country in terms of providing the necessary medical facilities and equipment for coronavirus.” This statement seems incongruous with the Central Bank of Iran’s continued attempt to secure a $5 billion loan from the IMF. Iran has stated that it will use the loan to fight the coronavirus, but there is concern that funds could be diverted to help prop up the failing economy. The IMF is currently in talks with the Iranian bank to determine if it is eligible. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif labeled US economic sanctions “medical terrorism.” These sanctions were reinstated after the United States withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, in May of 2018. The Trump administration deemed the accord insufficient, withdrew the United States, and swiftly reinstated economic sanctions on Iran. 

The Khamenei regime has called for an end to US sanctions which have devastated the Iranian economy for over a year, contributing to a recession, currency devaluation, and increased living costs. Supported by Russia and China, Zarif argued that US sanctions during the pandemic are not “moral.” According to the US think tank the Brookings Institution, “Iranian politicians say that they cannot import medical goods under sanctions; the U.S. responds that such goods have been excluded from the sanctions list.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that “the whole world should know that humanitarian assistance into Iran is wide open. It’s not sanctioned.” Both countries’ claims have yet to be substantiated. 

Whatever the status of medical imports, it is clear that US sanctions now compound other sources of economic stress for Iran. These include oil export losses and an end to various Islamic pilgrimages, a significant source of revenue. The IMF predicts Iran will see a negative 6 percent growth rate in 2020 and a doubling of their 20 percent national budget deficit this year. Many Iranians are in dire economic straits. For those struggling, breaking curfew to work is necessary to keep food on the table. Many cannot afford to buy adequate protective gear, even as many provinces in Iran report “alarming surges” in coronavirus cases. Poverty in Iran has moderately increased since 2013 and, though there are no current numbers, it is reasonable to assume that the coronavirus has further exacerbated the issue. 

A loan from the IMF’s Rapid Financing Initiative, a program that typically provides relief after natural disasters, might help to alleviate such economic distress. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani argued that “there should be no discrimination” in the approval process for the loan, echoing the accusations of some Iranian hard-liners that the United States will block the loan. The United States is the largest shareholder of the IMF and “largely determines the fate of bailout requests.” 

Reopening Iran 

Several weeks ago, Iran re-opened even though it did not meet the benchmarks recommended by health experts, which include contact tracing and a steady decline in cases. Information on true case numbers has not been forthcoming. By opening the country, the government seeks to placate fears and appear successful in fighting the virus. However, the mayor of Behbahan, a city in Khuzestan, one of the hardest-hit provinces in Iran, said in a statement that “positive results for corona tests have reached an explosion.” This is at odds with Rouhani’s assertion that “it’s a source of pride that Iran has managed to not only reopen businesses by observing protocols but also reactivate its mosques and religious centers—and also maintain a steady decline of the disease.”

The Politics of Change 

It is clear that the Khamenei regime has framed the coronavirus as both a humanitarian crisis and a war against the West. In an April 12 news conference, government spokesman Ali Rabiei exhorted Iranians to “fight against the coronavirus and the virus of sanctions together.” Javan, a daily newspaper and mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a paramilitary force tasked with protecting Iran from both internal and external threats, argued: “If we make utmost use of the opportunities, Iran will become one of the main actors in the post-corona world. If the West wants to avoid the path of collapse and isolation, they must reform their relations with the East (China, Russia, and Iran).” Such rhetoric has been characteristic of the official government response to the coronavirus. Iranian hard-liners seek to use the coronavirus crisis to unify the country, highlight US and Western antagonism, and extend control. 

However, Iran has been rocked by internal discontent over the past year. In November 2019, Iranians took to the streets after gas prices were raised. These demonstrations reflected the endemic and increasing disillusionment of Iranians towards their government as also “evidenced by the lowest-ever turnout in the February parliamentary election.” However, protest movements have stagnated as a result of the coronavirus, and some Iranians sympathetic to reform are beginning to lose hope as the IRGC gains power. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the official coronavirus case and death counts in Iran have been much lower than those projected by researchers. Though such undercounting may only reflect the lack of available testing, many Iranians are cognizant of the two “realities” at play: that promoted by the Khamenei regime and that based on fact. 

At least 60 percent of people in the Middle East are under thirty years old. Young Iranians are increasingly distrustful of the government and have also been particularly hard-hit by sanctions, with the current youth unemployment rate at 26.1 percent. Many Iranians have expressed growing concern over the late lockdown, the economic distress compounded by the coronavirus crisis, and increasingly hard-line rhetoric. However, there has been little evidence of protests recently, likely due to a combination of repression and the coronavirus. 

The Reckoning: Challenging Khamenei’s Iran

The coronavirus presents a political reckoning for Iran. Though Tehran wants to use the coronavirus as an “opportunity toward establishing a new world order” that favors Iran, the threat of chaos looms large. Many Iranians have begun to chafe at the messages proliferated by the Khamenei regime and Iran’s failure to effectively address the pandemic, some going as far to say that the coronavirus is being used as a bargaining chip. Others argue that the regime only functions as a personal solar system orbiting around Khamenei, who has controlled Iran since 1989. But, they ask, “what happens to a solar system when you take the sun out? Chaos.” Given Khamenei’s age and rising tensions in Iran, underscored by increasing factionalism, the imminent power struggle has already begun. 

Iran currently stands at a crossroads. The coronavirus has exacerbated existing strains on the Iranian population. Simmering discontent, the system’s failure to provide, and the sluggish official response to the virus stoke the flames of a conflagration. 

It is more than likely that there will be political turmoil in the wake of the current crisis. Eventually, Khamenei will die or another actor will take control and create a power vacuum. Khamenei has appeared to put his son Mojtaba forward as a successor, but it is likely that the IRGC will continue to extend its influence, even if maintaining a “facade of clerical rule.” When this happens, Iran will plunge into violence. It is unclear whether Iran’s hard-line factions, supported by the IRGC, will prevail, or whether young Iranians will be able to reshape their country. 

Major change is just over the horizon. The ways in which Iran responds to the coronavirus, as well as the current economic and political turmoil, will determine the country’s future. Such change promises to radically alter the nature of the Middle East and, by extension, its role in the international arena.

Katherine Leahy is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). The original photo was taken by Mohsen Atayi and can be found here. The image was not changed.


Katherine Leahy


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