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Mullahs & COVID-19: Iran’s failing response reflects regime’s priorities

The Iranian regime’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been erratic and flailing.
iran flag

Having declared 14,991 confirmed cases and 853 deaths as of March 17, Iran has been the Middle East country hit hardest by the coronavirus. After China and Italy, it is the worst hit globally.
This week, 78-year-old Ayatollah Hashem Bathaie Golpayegani, a member of the powerful Assembly of Experts, died of the disease. The assembly is the body that appoints the supreme leader. Golpayegani is the latest in a growing list of senior officials to have caught the virus.
The Iranian regime’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been erratic and flailing. Many of the precise details of this inadequate response derive directly from the particular nature of the regime itself. Initial complacency, a desire not to offend allies and supporters, and then an effort to “solve” the problem through repression, propaganda and restriction of information have been salient characteristics. As such, the coronavirus is likely to form an additional element in the ongoing erosion of such legitimacy as the Islamic regime still possesses in the eyes of large parts of its population.
At the beginning, Tehran apparently failed to gauge the seriousness of the threat. As a result, precious time was wasted. The authorities did not cancel flights from China to Iran, after being informed about the virus in late January. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-associated Mahan Air continued to transport religious students between China and the Shia holy city of Qom.
Tehran’s relations with Beijing are of growing importance to the regime. Iran therefore preferred to downplay reports of the virus rather than risk offending its ally. The first cases of deaths from the virus were reported in Qom on February 19.
The regime then compounded this initial misstep by refusing to take measures that could have contained the virus. No efforts were made to quarantine the city of Qom. No order was given to cease pilgrimages to the city.
A hospital administrator in Tehran’s Yaftabad was quoted in a report on the virus on an Iranian opposition website as saying, “If we had limited the travel of people in Qom, since the epicenter of the illness is in Qom, the spread would not have been so extensive. You look at the map and you will see that it spread to neighboring provinces from Qom.”
Iranian parliamentary elections were scheduled for February 21. The regime’s attempt to downplay the spread of the virus appears to have been linked to a desire to ensure that the elections would proceed as smoothly as possible.
In early March, official statements by the regime continued to downplay the virus. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on March 3 said: “This disease is not serious; we have seen more disastrous calamities than this,” and he referred to the virus as a “fleeting event.”
Such statements were belied by the evidence emerging from the country. This included eerie satellite images apparently showing newly dug mass burial pits in the main cemetery in Qom.
By mid-March, comments by Iranian leaders had shifted from downplaying the virus to presenting it as a “biological attack” carried out by an unnamed adversary. In an official statement issued by the Supreme Leader’s Office announcing the formation of a centralized “health base” to fight the disease on March 13, Khamenei noted that the establishment of the base “may also be regarded as a biological defense exercise and add to our national sovereignty and power, given the evidence that suggests the likelihood of this being a biological attack.”
But the shift from indifference to a language of national mobilization does not appear to have been accompanied by a coherent, nationwide strategy to suppress the virus.
The Masumeh Shrine at Qom, the main pilgrimage site in the city, was finally closed on Monday. The Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, which attracts 25 million pilgrims annually, was closed on the same day. But businesses and restaurants in Tehran remain open. Many citizens dismiss advice regarding limiting social contact. The airport remains in operation. Local health authorities appear largely to be left to themselves to combat the spread and deal with existing cases as best they can.
The regime, meanwhile, now appears to be engaged in a systematic effort to prevent the revealing of information regarding the actual state of affairs in Iran. The powerful Ministry of Intelligence and Security, in cooperation with the IRGC, is carrying out this task. The IRGC has mobilized its regional divisions, which have dispatched operatives to local hospitals and medical centers to control reporting on the number of people infected with the virus or killed by it.
Nahid Khodakarami, head of the Health Commission of the Tehran City Council, said on March 1: “Yesterday, I said that in Tehran it is possible that 10,000 people have been infected with coronavirus. The IRGC intelligence unit called me and complained. They asked, Why did you provide this number? I said, Sir, how long are you going to cover this up? These numbers are being talked about in society, and my saying it calms the situation. Let’s be transparent with the people. We shouldn’t make this disease a security matter.”
The absence of accurate information in the public sphere itself further handicaps the formulation of an effective practical response. The result is a public health disaster. It is widely considered that even the very high official figures of those suffering from, and those who have died from, the coronavirus in Iran may represent only a fraction of the true figures.
Certainly the ramshackle situation of Iran’s health system and wider public infrastructure as a result of sanctions have also contributed to the disaster.
Thus, the nature of, and the policies pursued by, the Iranian regime have clearly contributed to the gravity of the health crisis in Iran today. The regime’s preference for its diplomatic relationships and its elections over the safety of its citizens, its pursuit of policies resulting in international isolation and sanctions and the consequent decline in health infrastructure, and its restriction of information have all played negative roles.
The regime has also not attempted the draconian suppression strategy carried out in China, which in the latter country has led to the slowing of the virus’s spread and the decline in new cases.
THOSE WHO have predicted that the coronavirus could lead to the fall of the regime in Iran are probably overreaching. Revolutions, with their necessary mobilization and organization, do not occur during pandemics.
But a series of events has occurred since October 2019 that has served to show the hollowness of this regime’s ideological proclamations and the dysfunctional and ramshackle reality that lies behind them.
These events include the demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, and the brutally suppressed protests in Iran itself in November 2019. The regime’s disastrous response to the coronavirus will undoubtedly constitute an additional significant episode in revealing the nature of this regime to its own people.
The result will be a situation in which the Islamic regime in Tehran increasingly will sustain itself through the exercise of force alone.

Published in The Jerusalem Post, 20.03.2020

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Picture of ד"ר יונתן ספייר

ד"ר יונתן ספייר

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is one of the very few Western/Israeli experts to have traveled extensively in Syria, Iraq and the Kurdish areas during the recent years of conflict. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (Routledge, December 2017), and The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010). He is a regular contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review, has published in leading journals and media outlets including Middle East Quarterly, Times (of London), Foreign Policy, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Haaretz, Atlantic, Australian, National Post, Globe and Mail, Jerusalem Report, Jerusalem Post and others; and has appeared on CNN, al-Jazeera, Fox, BBC, Sky, and other outlets. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and an MA in Middle East politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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