On February 19, Iran confirmed its first cases of the COVID-19 virus. According to the government’s data less than 2,000 people had been infected. However, doubts arose when reports emerged of the government covering-up cases and deaths. Charged with mismanagement and ignorance about COVID-19 which officials labeled a fake disease, Iran’s government is in crisis and is eager to avert a political disaster.
Public frustration has increased after the coronavirus outbreak, forcing Iran’s Health Ministry to admit to delays in responding to COVID-19. But despite calls to halt flights from China, the government ignored this plea for several weeks. Iranians have refused to send their children outdoors, forcing schools to shut down across the country.
Also, public pressure has forced shrines to be closed but conservative Friday Prayer Imams have resisted the decision. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei inviting Iranians to read the Shia seventh-sahifa prayers, Ayatollah Vahid Khorasani advising the public to chant Quranic verses, and other clerics insisting on traditional medicine to fight COVID-19, have led the public to believe that the government is using religious superstition to hide its own mishandling of the coronavirus threat.
Major shrines including the Imam Reza shrine eventually closed. Some Iranians broke into shrines after the shutdown, leading conservative mouthpieces to argue that the people opposed the government’s decision. This conservative opposition triggered Iranians to question whether the government wanted to keep shrines open to appease the masses, or to collect pilgrimage dues to finance its regional plans.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has led the government to take a number of measures, such as restricting public movement and encouraging people to stay away from public places. In truth, the government’s measures seem to be driven by security rather than health concerns.
Iran’s army has started biological defense maneuvers under the umbrella of the National Committee to Fight Corona. The committee has claimed to have set up 300 rapid deployment field hospitals and monitors checkpoints across the country. This measure can help the government to launch mass arrests in case people protest. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) says it dispatched medical and security forces to support the committee’s measures.
The aforementioned measures were taken despite warnings by health officials to enforce quarantines. President Hassan Rouhani dismissed the idea and called city-wide quarantines an archaic concept that never works. But Tehran’s population density of nearly 10 million increases the likelihood of the virus spreading quickly.
There is no doubt that the virus poses a system-wide political threat to the political system. Iranians have increasingly turned to external sources to learn about the real impact of the virus because civil society groups are silenced.
The government responds by blaming outsiders for the outbreak of the virus in the country. The IRGC and government figures suggest that COVID-19 could be a US-designed form of biological warfare and a plot to increase Iran’s political and economic isolation, which government critics call delusional. To draw attention to Iran’s blame game, foreign leaders including Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have pointed to Tehran’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak leading it to rapidly spread inside Iran as well as across the region in the Gulf and the Middle East including Turkey, and Central Asia. The virus has forced a 35 percent drop in Iran’s exports, as a result of 11 of its concerned neighbors closing land and air borders with Tehran.
To absorb this economic cost, the IRGC says it will generate employment and support the bazaar, usually a hotbed for social upheavals in Iran. But critics predict that Iran’s post-coronavirus economy will be crippled, and the schism between the people and the government will increase. More importantly, fewer Iranians will accept the government’s conspiracy theories of blaming foreigners for the outbreak and the spread of the virus in the country.