By Ariane M. Tabatabai
April 30, 2020
In February, Iran emerged as an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government swiftly proved incapable of handling the outbreak. Officials downplayed the seriousness of the crisis even as reports surfaced of Iranians dying by the hundreds. The death toll soon surpassed 1,000 and reached more than 5,000 by mid-April, according to official figures—which no doubt underestimate the body count.
The domestic rivals of Iran’s civilian-led government are now trying to capitalize on the administration’s bungled response. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an influential branch of the armed forces often aligned with the conservative religious establishment, has taken measure of mounting public anger at the government and has rushed to present itself as the actor more capable of containing the outbreak. Whatever the public health merits of the Revolutionary Guards’ actions, the public relations strategy is clear: the IRGC hopes to gain from this crisis at the expense of the pragmatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his allies. By bidding to style themselves as Iran’s saviors, the guards could further undermine the government and help conservatives oust moderates in next year’s presidential elections.
Tensions between the government and the IRGC have been escalating ever since Rouhani took office in 2013. From the start of his presidency, Rouhani has worked to contain the IRGC’s economic power and its sprawling business networks. Despite the guards’ opposition, he bulldozed ahead with reforms designed to make the economy more transparent so as to ultimately attract banks and businesses back to Iran after the conclusion of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
But in 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump designated the IRGC as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization,” a move that effectively tilted the domestic power struggle between the Rouhani government and the guards in the IRGC’s favor. If Rouhani continued to press against the IRGC’s economic influence, he risked appearing to be aligned with the United States. The Iranian president has since backed away from his aggressive posture toward the guards in order to protect himself and his allies from that accusation.
Even under favorable conditions, however, the guards have created problems for themselves. A series of particularly disastrous failures and public relations gaffes has bedeviled the IRGC in recent months. In January, the guards mistakenly downed a Ukrainian airliner in an attempt to retaliate against the United States’ targeted killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani, one of the group’s most important commanders. All passengers and crew aboard the aircraft were killed. After initially denying any involvement in the crash, the guards admitted their role but never took full responsibility: no high-ranking IRGC officials resigned or lost their positions.
The IRGC had hoped to showcase a decisive and spectacular response to Soleimani’s death by striking two bases in Iraq that housed U.S. troops, but the destruction of the Ukrainian jet overshadowed the missile attacks. To make matters worse, the regime initiated a flimsy cover-up and exhibited a general lack of accountability—particularly within the IRGC—which renewed public discontent.
Just two months earlier, in November 2019, security forces (including IRGC units) had put down social unrest by killing several hundred civilians in just 72 hours. The crackdown was the most violent and rapid since the 1979 revolution. Now, protests greeted the mishandling of the Ukrainian airliner incident, and the regime feared a revival of the earlier unrest, juiced by fury over both the crackdown and the shootdown.
Rouhani’s struggle to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, offered the guards an opportunity to rehabilitate their image at home and abroad. The virus spread at shocking speed in Iran, even though the country’s health-care system is relatively well developed. The government is largely responsible for the scale of the outbreak. Authorities downplayed the risk of the infection even as one official after another tested positive for the virus. They refused to impose a lockdown after a spate of cases turned up in the holy city of Qom, claiming that quarantines were not a twenty-first-century solution to a twenty-first-century problem. Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi insisted that such measures were a relic of “the situation before World War I.” And authorities went ahead with parliamentary elections in late February, encouraging people to go to the polls despite the risk of infection. When the government finally imposed restrictions and encouraged social distancing in March, they were already too late to stop the spread of the disease.
Rouhani’s government was clearly overwhelmed as infection rates soared in February and early March. In the eyes of his conservative critics, the president was missing in action. They took to social media to push the hashtag #WheresRouhani? Conservative parliamentarians echoed the Internet clamor, issuing a statement that highlighted the ineptitude of Rouhani’s team.
The IRGC, too, saw an opportunity to assert its leadership, projecting itself as the guardian of public health and the champion of the fight against the invisible enemy. On both traditional and social media, the guards showed themselves extending aid to those in need, from distributing funds to ramping up the domestic production of test kits, masks, and equipment. They even unveiled a device that they claimed could detect COVID-19 infections from 100 meters away, although it is not clear that the instrument has any real use beyond eye-catching propaganda.
IRGC commanders announced that they would donate 20 percent of their salaries to relief efforts. Representatives of the guards were photographed disinfecting streets, cars, and trees. Together with their affiliated Basij militias, the guards have even assumed the responsibility of issuing death certificates, a power that allows the IRGC to steer the media narrative by suppressing the number of fatalities associated with COVID-19.
Unsurprisingly, some of the guards’ plans directly compete with those of the government, such as a scheme to disperse financial assistance to low-income Iranians. The overlap is deliberate and is meant to tout the efficacy of the guards in comparison to the government. That strategy isn’t new. In the past, the IRGC has turned major disasters, including earthquakes and floods, into public relations campaigns that show the organization as decisive and adept where the government is slow and inept.
ON THE COVID CAMPAIGN TRAIL
The guards hope to demonstrate that their competence stands in stark contrast to Rouhani’s incompetence. In so doing, they hope to deny Rouhani a victory in his final year in office. Iran will hold presidential elections in the first half of 2021. Rouhani cannot run for a third term, but discrediting him may help propel a conservative or a hard-liner (perhaps one affiliated with the guards) into power at the expense of a moderate.
Rouhani’s bloc has virtually no accomplishments to celebrate on the campaign trail. The president spent most of his tenure trying to secure a nuclear deal (which was signed in 2015) and then trying to salvage it after Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018. The sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have exacted a heavy toll on the Iranian economy and left it ill-equipped to fend off the pandemic. But they have also helped feed the IRGC narrative that the United States seeks to hurt Iran and that Rouhani’s attempts to broker deals with Washington were naive.
To drive the message home, media outlets associated with the guards have showcased the IRGC’s international proxy network providing relief to Iranians even as the West piles on more sanctions. Tasnim News, for instance, ran a story about members of Iraqi Shiite militias helping disinfect religious sites in Qom. The goal is not only to show the value of Iran’s proxies (on whom the IRGC lavishes, by some estimates, billions of dollars) but also to demonstrate that these groups are the country’s real international partners. The guards hope to paint the attempts of moderates such as Rouhani to engage with the West as foolhardy and bound to fail.
The COVID-19 outbreak in Iran is inextricable from the country’s internal power struggle. The government’s mishandling of the pandemic has hurt Rouhani’s bloc and the civilian-led executive branch within the Islamic Republic. And it has provided an opportunity for the IRGC to try to make up for its recent failures. How Iranians perceive the government and the guards in the aftermath of the outbreak will likely influence elections in 2021, which in turn will shape Iran’s future relations with the United States.