Published by the New Arab
As it characterised what I called “gross incompetence and wanton disregard for the lives of ordinary Iranians,” I believed it to be an era-defining catastrophe.
What could be possibly worse?
Little did I know that Iran’s annus horribilis was just about to start.
Along with China and Italy, Iran was an early epicentre of the novel coronavirus pandemic that has hit the world on a shocking scale. To date, the country has had the third highest number of cases and deaths – more than 1,000 deaths out of a total of 17,000 cases. As one scholar explained in a great analysis of deficiencies in Iran’s response, the crisis comes at the worst possible time and “has no silver lining.”
Few countries are as badly affected as Iran, and yet Iran’s response has been shockingly haphazard and disappointing. Authoritarian states such as China showed much failure in early efforts to deal with the virus, including a lack of transparency, and not dealing with the outbreak as swiftly as they could have, but they also showed some of the benefits of a centralised approach without the checks and balances in place in democratic countries.
The same could be said of the undemocratic monarchy in Morocco where the king isn’t accountable to the populace but commands general trust and acquiesce. Iran’s Islamic Republic is currently featuring worst of all worlds: an authoritarian system without centralism and leaders who are incompetent, unaccountable and lack trust with their people.
These features are not new for Iran watchers, but the coronavirus outbreak has shown just how deadly they can be.
Iran’s revolutionary authoritarianism and bizarrely designed constitution means that power is divided between different branches in a way that doesn’t provide checks and balances but does make for a lack of coordination.
Furthermore, there are very influential bodies and a powerful revolutionary culture that decries a centralised approach. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is the most powerful man in Iran, and he wields much of his power through his control of the regime’s many oppressive bodies.
But he has also gone on the record saying that proponents of the revolution can “shoot at will” when they decide it is in the interest of the revolution – even if it means breaking the law.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Khamenei’s praetorian guard and the country’s most powerful institution, explicitly defines itself and its mission beyond the constitution and laws of the country.
This conflict of power has showed itself in many events in the past: A businessman invited by President Rouhani to attend a summit in Iran who was then arrested by the IRGC without the official government even finding out, or a provincial prayer leader in Iran’s second biggest city, Mashhad, banning live music, despite the organisers having permission from the government.
In response to coronavirus, we’ve seen this lack of coordination on a wider and more tragic scale.
The outbreak started in the holy city of Qom, a historical centre of the Shia branch of Islam, and essentially a massive student town with thousands of Iranian and foreign seminary students.
Despite repeated pleas, officials initially refused to close the city’s holy shrines. When they did, a number of extremist Shias (likely those opposed to the government) took the law into their own hands by demonstrating outside a holy shrine. They demanded entry at all costs.
In countries with many fewer cases of the virus than Iran, like the United States or Austria, there have been stringent quarantine and lockdown measures in place.
Yet as Iran approaches its new year holiday (the Persian calendar begins on March 21), shocking images show hundreds crowding in Tehran’s famed bazaar and many embarking on traditional holiday activities, as if nothing has changed.
The government has ruled out quarantine measures and resorted to some officials occasionally begging people not to leave their houses. Such pleas often fall on deaf ears not least due to the lack of trust between people, civil society organisations and the government.
A force as robust and vast as IRGC could now play a crucial role in fighting the epidemic (as many citizens are calling on it to do), but its job would be infinitely harder due to the lack of mutual trust not only with the people but with Iran’s professional and educated class; including those health care heroes who are on the frontlines.
I spoke to many civil society activists worried for their constituents, wishing they could partner with institutions such as the IRGC to protect the most vulnerable. But the only time the organs such as the IRGC have shown interest in such NGOs, is when it arrests their members.
Iran’s dire economic straits are also to blame. The recent collapse in oil prices is obviously bad news for Iran but it becomes much worse when we remember the strong regime of sanctions that US President Donald Trump’s has imposed on Iran as part of its policy of “maximum pressure”.
To just take one measure, Iran’s oil revenue has now collapsed to under $10 billion – it was more than $120 billion less than a decade ago.
Is Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy really working? The stated goal of Washington is not the downfall of the Islamic Republic, but bringing it to the negotiating table for a revamping of the 2015 deal. Many argue that its hidden goal is the collapse of the Tehran regime.
Whichever is the case, the coronavirus episode shows the dangers of this policy. Not only has the United States not given temporary relief to Iran in the midst of this crisis, it has added further sanctions.
From a humanitarian perspective, this is a criminally irresponsible course of action, directly adding to human death and suffering. But it is even more irresponsible from a political point of view. It is a policy aimed at bringing the regime to its knees but it will effectively help hollow out the country’s institution, and prepare conditions for state collapse; an outcome that would be an unmitigated disaster for the region and the world.
Watching Iran’s health professionals working tirelessly against the outbreak and Iranians from around the world, many of whom are barred from returning to their homeland, showing their solidarity and offering their help, we are reminded of the strongest asset of any progressive hopes for Iran: an engaged society and a class of educated Iranians who care deeply about their country, even when it shuns them.
Positive change for Iran will not come from pressuring the society, but from engaging it and strengthening those elements who could help bring about a progressive revamping of the state’s embattled institutions.