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How Iran’s Dictators Laid the Foundation for the Country’s Coronavirus Crisis

The severity of the coronavirus pandemic in Iran seems surprising on the surface: The country has suffered nearly 20,000 cases—far more than any country outside Europe or East Asia. While the disease itself is, of course, an apolitical phenomenon, Iran’s repressive, theocratic political system has played a role in the especially high toll that coronavirus is taking on the Iranian people.

There is a direct chain of causality linking last year’s protests in Iran to the heightened severity of this year’s pandemic. Many of those protestors were disillusioned youth who’d come to realize that the promise of gradual political “reform” was empty. The regime succeeded in suppressing the protestors, but only until the regime’s destruction of a Ukrainian civilian airliner (and botched response to the tragedy) brought protestors back out onto the streets.

Parliamentary elections took place in February. Having struggled in recent years to bring Iranians to the polls, leaders were unsettled by indications that this would be the lowest turnout in the regime’s 41-year history. They also were eager to get a pro-regime boost from the country’s annual February 11th marches in celebration of the 1979 Revolution, not to mention a weeks-long “Magnificent Iran” cultural festival in the western Iranian city of Hamedan, which coincided with the Chinese New Year. Desperate to boost the economy, regime-affiliated news outlets ran promotional articles aimed at Chinese tourists. So, on all counts, news of an epidemic was off message. Regime officials had little incentive to spread news of the early outbreak in January—and much incentive to censor emerging rumors that some Iranians already had become infected.

Making the situation all the more potentially explosive was the fact that many Iranians have a special antipathy for China, as it is one of the few powerful countries that has openly supported the Iranian regime. News of Chinese tourists heading into Iran, some of them potentially sick with a contagious disease, predictably inflamed public sentiment. On social media, especially Instagram, I saw videos of Chinese tourists being cursed and shouted at by Iranians and being told to return to China with “their virus.”

Yet, everything continued as scheduled. The elections were held (with abysmal turnout), the festival went on, Chinese tourists kept coming, and “Victory Day” celebrations took place. Most Iranians were still unaware of the severity of the coronavirus risk. And despite the mounting number of confirmed cases, the regime kept denying that there was any real risk to speak of.

In February, most countries were canceling flights to and from China. This was not the case with Mahan Airlines, which is owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s equivalent of a modern Praetorian Guard. (Estimates suggest that the IRGC, which also manages the military’s international paramilitary apparatus, controls at least 20 percent of the Iranian economy.) In fact, Mahan Airlines officials even agreed to pick up Chinese nationals from third countries and take them to China following a stop in Iran. When Mahan finally did stop flying to China, it wasn’t the IRGC that made the decision. Rather, it was Chinese officials, who ended the flights based on suspicions that the virus had mutated in Iran.

Eventually, the regime bowed to the inevitable, and the deputy health minister confirmed the existence of a coronavirus problem in Iran, though he claimed it was under control. In a sad episode of poetic justice, that deputy minister himself was confirmed to be one of the country’s infected citizens the very next day. One of Iran’s vice presidents, Masoumeh Ebtekar (who’d gained infamy as the hostage-takers’ spokeswoman in 1979, when some knew her as “Bloody Mary”) also tested positive; as did Iran’s first vice president, Eshagh Jahangiri; and some of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s closest advisors. Some members of parliament tested positive, too. (Earlier this month, one of them died.)

These events marked a turning point, and people went into self-quarantine. With Iranians dying from coronavirus at the rate of about 150 per day—one every 10 minutes—a large portion of the population now has at least one friend, co-worker or family member who’s been seriously affected.

Iran is not the only country whose leaders’ early response to coronavirus was to minimize (or even deny) the public risk. But the low level of trust that Iranians have in their regime made matters worse. Crises are petri dishes for rumors. Conspiracy theories and toxic rumors are common in Iran even on the best of days. The pandemic has made everything worse, exacerbating the problem of communicating best health practices to citizens.

Doctors and nurses have taken it upon themselves to send out messages on social media about shortages of medical goods. Most of them, including my cousins, who still live in Iran, have visited infected patients without wearing safety kits—because there are few to be had. There is also a shortage of test kits. Dozens of physicians have died, and hundreds more are infected.

The mask shortage is especially sensitive because the IRGC had taken these items off the retail market in 2019, after Iranian protestors used them to cover their faces to avoid arrest. Meanwhile, regime cronies are manipulating the wholesale supply to enrich themselves. At one point, Ali Javanmardi, an opposition journalist known to receive information from regime informants, used Telegram (an app used by everyone in Iran) to send out the locations where masks were being stored. The building was duly looted, and the masks were discovered.

Iranians also may simply be more vulnerable to the virus because of the negative health effects of regime policies. Public hygiene has been neglected for years. A Food and Agriculture Organization survey from 2016 showed high rates of vitamin D deficiency in Iran—an issue that has been linked to coronavirus in early research. This should not come as a surprise given that vitamin D is produced through exposure to sunlight, and Iran is a country where men are not allowed to wear shorts or sleeveless shirts, and women can show only their faces, hands, and feet. More broadly, a constant state of economic crisis, corruption and mismanagement has left many Iranians poor and often badly nourished, thereby weakening their immune systems. Some protestors last year complained about how they hadn’t eaten meat in years. Meanwhile, many factories are refusing to suspend business. In one notorious instance, when a Coca-Cola employee fainted inside his facility, managers responded by threatening to fire anybody who failed to show up for work the next day.

The crisis also has served to highlight the regime’s hypocrisy. On one hand, the regime made a show of refusing a US aid offer. On the other hand, while flights to Kish, an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf, have been declared off limits for ordinary Iranians, videos of the regime’s leaders and clerics enjoying themselves on the island have gone viral on social media. Leaders are perfectly happy to act on “principle” when the effect is to deprive ordinary Iranians of help. But the leaders themselves apparently continue to live large. In fact, even some members of parliament—hardliners and reformists alike—now are condemning the government’s performance. (There is also infighting over the closure of holy shrines, which provide a great source of revenue for the clergy.)

For now, most Iranians are in some form of self-quarantine, and so the mood is as quiet as it is tense. Nobody knows when the crisis will end, and they are resorting to social media to express their outrage. Once people finally leave their homes, that will change, however. For the regime, the worst is likely yet to come.

 

Shay Khatiri is an MA Student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Follow him on Twitter @ShayKhatiri.

Featured image: A worker sprays down an Iranian public bus with disinfectant, February 23rd, 2020. 

Comments

  1. “In one notorious instance, when a Coca-Cola employee fainted inside his facility, managers responded by threatening to fire anybody who failed to show up for work the next day.”

    WHAT is Coca-Cola doing in Iran in the first place? Time for a boycott perhaps?

  2. In China, the Deng Xiaoping reforms which brought market-based systems into China, with the admonition “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”, has allowed the market to exist alongside Government. In the West, the provision of universal healthcare similarly allows for the ‘man of systems’ top-down approach so typical of Government to be at least minimised, or limited, in the same way that liberal democracy in the classic sense, limits the power of the state to impose itself into the daily lives of ordinary citizens.

    Intervention in the market by unrestricted Government fiat, is in many ways just as dangerous as the imposition of Government tyranny over the essential liberty of the individual, and the showcase of Iran proves it. Because in China at least, the market is seen as a necessity, whilst in Iran no such provision exists. The tragic result is a sad litany of lies, corruption, ineptitude, repression and distortion.

    And in any system where the ideal of Socialism is left to run amok, without the check to power that strong democracy represents, Socialism is sure to summon it’s four brothers of Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. Iran should serve as a warning to those in the West intent upon summoning yet another Socialist utopia- because the illusory ideal always turns out to be a mirage, concealing a landscape of emaciated bodies and all-too-bloody human tragedy.

  3. We only boycott Coca-Cola if they have a facility in Israel. Please get it right.

  4. So the thousands of deaths in Europe have nothing to do with the murderous sanctions imposed by the US on Iran, then. It’s the fault of the ‘dictators’. European countries should not see this as an opportunity, a necessity, to explicitly break from the Zionist-driven barbarism and stupidity of US Middle East policy. If they did, Iran’s ‘dictators’ might not build nuclear weapons, and they sure as hell need them.

  5. Promoting type 2 diabetes?

  6. It’s 8 o’clock. Time for your meds.

  7. “[…] far more than any country outside Europe or East Asia.”

    Factually, the United States of America has some 35,241 cases? And I need to keep the numbers straight as I have been accused of being innumerate.

    I feel your planting seeds of revolution, well more alike to kindling for a future revolution. You’re a follower of the Shah, Mohammad Reza the old monarchy… n’est ce pas? I am curious, do you consider yourself as a neoconservative, to be like Billy Kristol a democrat ‘at least until Trump is out of office’.

    "While the disease itself is, of course, an apolitical phenomenon […]

    It was at this point that I am sure without a doubt I heard the other shoe drop and then…

    " […] Iran’s repressive, theocratic political system has played a role in the especially high toll that coronavirus is taking on the Iranian people."

    I see now that you have taken on a bit of colour by your exposure to Kristol, and now pull one of the plays from, the Rahm Emanuel playbook.

    " […] never let a good crisis go to waste when it’s an opportunity to do things you had never considered or you didn’t think were possible, […]" --Raul Emanuel

    “There is a direct chain of causality linking last year’s protests in Iran to the heightened severity of this year’s pandemic.”

    You haven’t convinced me of this, in fact, I can’t see any connection at all.

    “So, on all counts, news of an epidemic was off message.”

    It would seem in the failing politics that someone in the regime would have read Raul Emanuel’s playbook and saw what you see, an opportunity to blame someone else, to bring the people back to the faith. I am not seeing your point, its a pandemic and has been that since it started in China, there was so much confusion at the beginning for all countries scrambling to find a proper response.

    “Making the situation all the more potentially explosive was the fact that many Iranians have a special antipathy for China […]”

    Really?

    China considers Iran a permanent partner for its exports and a source of its growing energy demand.

    “The US Energy Information Administration estimated Iran’s proved gas reserves as of 2016 to be 1,201 trillion cubic feet (34.0 trillion cubic metres),[3] rendering it second in the world.” --Wikipedia

    That’s quite a statement, considering that India and mainly the Chinese buy all that sweet natural gas. Iran’s export of LNG and both Iran and China have been trading via the silk road for hundreds of years, which has evolved to become the Belt and Road Initiative which has prospered Iran. Iran imports a major amount of its needs from China. Sanctions have forced that economy.

    “Iranians and Chinese are currently renovating rails to connect Urumqi to Tehran as well as connect Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan […]”

    The ‘Five Nations Railway’?

    Has this not brought great prosperity in spite of US sanctions, which China has always been willing to go around for Iran. Iran has always counted on China’s special voting rights at the UN to veto what the west imposes on Iran.

    “[…](who’d gained infamy as the hostage-takers’ spokeswoman in 1979, when some knew her as “Bloody Mary”) […]”

    A bit of a straw man being built here, are you taking a bit of pleasure in the fact that higher officials are becoming infected?

    "Most of them, including my cousins, who still live in Iran, have visited infected patients without wearing safety kits—because there are few to be had. There is also a shortage of test kits. Dozens of physicians have died, and hundreds more are infected.

    “The mask shortage is especially sensitive because the IRGC had taken these items off the retail market in 2019, after Iranian protestors used them to cover their faces to avoid arrest.”

    Is this not being caused by American sanctions, indirectly. And the mask shortage is that not one of those rumours you talked about earlier. It is unsubstantiated, with no source for the allegation but AVAToday. And they have no source for the allegation.

    “The building was duly looted, and the masks were discovered.”

    …again, no source and you base this conclusion on an unsubstantiated fake news piece, a simple rumour.

    The building was duly looted, and the masks were discovered.

    " A Food and Agriculture Organization survey from 2016 showed high rates of vitamin D deficiency in Iran […]"

    The truth is Shay that there is a world epidemic of vitamin D deficiency, most government daily requirements are a pittance of the usual amount needed. I would hazard a guess that your blood mole level is low as well. And besides, the imposed self-isolation and government forced isolations can only add to this as, a good hour in sun is necessary to produce the 22,000 units the body produces in a day with proper skin exposure to ultraviolet. People, globally are not spending as much time outside as they use to, in spite of the recent pandemic.

    “Iranians poor and often badly nourished […]”

    …again can we say US sanctions have indirect responsibility for this as well?

    I had to give up at some point Shay, what I found was that the epidemic gave you an opportunity to write another hit piece. Which really is despicable. Even though I am not in favour of Iran theocracy, I find your piece in bad taste of the present pandemic (sic).

  8. I assume you mean horsemen of apocalypse – but are we not suffering the same pestilence and democracy is no place to hide from it…pestilence I am now assured is apolitical.

  9. Many, many of those sanctions have to deal with supplies of oil and weapons to Syria, indirectly I believe other sanctions affect Iran. But murderous? And again US sanctions do not cause deaths in Europe.

  10. Seems that deepstates and dictators the world over is co-opting this “pandemic” to implement some, in their mind, long overdue changes.

    Ask first why it is so hard to find detailed demographic numbers taking into account underlying medical conditions where the “crisis” is worst. Then ask about Japan and South Korea.

    Then watch these two guys

    Waddayathink?

  11. Thanks for those. They are very string arguments against the current panic.

  12. This article lays out the possible links between repressive Iranian policies and the rapid spread of the disease within Iran’s borders. The Iranian government isn’t only repressive, it’s incompetent too.

    But US sanctions enabled the rapid spread of the disease within and without Iran’s borders. Normally, these sanctions are merely inhumane and mildly counterproductive. Now, given that it’s likely that the Italian pandemic started from an Iranian, and that the US is clearly unprepared, they are highly counterproductive, including from the point of view of Trump’s followers, including those who read Quillette and think this makes them smart.

  13. Thersites:

    We only boycott Coca-Cola if they have a facility in Israel. Please get it right.

    I agree, though I know you’re being ironic. I don’t boycott just any old nasty regime, only the ones I’m complicit in by my taxes and the servile politicians who run my country. That’s why I boycotted South Africa but not Sudan, and why I boycott Israel but not Iran.

  14. US foreign aid (including military assistance) accounts for less than 1% of all foreign spending. Why single out one tiny little state for reclaiming their historical homeland from Arab colonialism? And even if the leaders of BDS do succeed in their stated goal of exterminating every single Jew in the state of Israel, whose territorial claims do you suggest the international community uphold Syria, Jordan or Egypt, or should they simply split the country?

    Palestine, after all, was a British invention, created by seizing territory from the Ottoman Empire- so maybe modern day Turkey should possess the land. The Levantine dialect is spoken in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, so perhaps these countries have the greatest cultural claim to the Arabs currently living in Israel or the remaining elements of the old British Mandate.

    Face it, anti-Zionism is just anti-Semitism dressed up in new clothes. Oh, and by the way, the PLA also has the stated aim of exterminating all Jews. Funny how almost every country in the region, with the exception of Iran, is now an ally of Israel, whilst mainly white, ethnically European people have a problem with Jews who are 50% ethnically brown, having a country of their own. But then again, one wouldn’t expect liberal journalists to report on the Israel-Sunni Coalition or their friendlier relations with Egypt.

    The first “Arab Palestinian Congress” called for Palestinian unity and independence in 1919, albeit still understanding Palestine as part of “Greater Syria.” Before then there was no such thing as a Palestinian people. The Arabs of the territories have no language, religion or general culture that distinguishes them significantly from the Arabs of Jordan, Syria (where some factions still claim Palestine as part of “Greater Syria”) or other neighbouring Arab states. So why should Israel be destroyed to make room for a country that never existed?

  15. No, anti-Zionism is a logical consequence of opposing racism, not of supporting it.

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