By Behnam Ben Taleblu
July 18, 2020
Iran experienced its highest-ever record of coronavirus-related deaths in just one day earlier this month, bringing the official number of reported deaths since late February to more than 13,000. These deaths follow a widely reported second peak of confirmed coronavirus infections from early June. Despite this trend, as well as Iran’s status as a regional hub for the virus, the Islamic Republic has not used the pandemic as an opportunity to moderate its behavior or improve the function of government at home.
It’s tempting to see the Islamic Republic’s response to COVID-19 as mere incompetence, perhaps best exemplified through various city-wide lockdowns that were short-lived. But this ignores the strongly opportunistic and ideological streak in many Iranian officials who are pressing ahead with their longstanding revolutionary, Islamist, and authoritarian agendas, all of which puts the regime’s interest ahead of the national interest.
Nowhere is this clearer than the Islamic Republic’s treatment of its own citizens. As reported in June, Iranian police have been increasing their crackdown on citizens posting pictures on social media in violation of Islamic social mores and the country’s mandatory hijab, or headscarf, policy. Later that month, hardliner lawmakers in parliament entertained the idea of enacting a nationwide ban on Instagram. Between a quarter to over one-half of the population uses Instagram, which is not blocked like Facebook, Twitter, or Telegram. With Iranians spending longer hours at home (and assumedly more time online) due to the pandemic, their limited privacy and freedom is again coming under attack.
The extent of the crackdown, however, far surpasses aggressively policing social media and making arrests. The employment of lethal force to settle political scores is also occurring. Just days ago, Human Rights Watch reported that Iranian courts upheld a death penalty order for three protestors who partook in demonstrations in 2019. The case has prompted massive social recoil online, but the Iranian judiciary has not formally repealed the sentence to date. To make matters worse, all three men were reportedly tortured while in custody. And in April, lethal force was used against protestors in prison who were rioting against the potential spread of Coronavirus in jails. According to Amnesty International, 35 prisoners were killed. Media outlets like Radio Farda have documented the concerns of Iranian prisoners who fear they and their cellmates have been exposed to the virus. Tehran has largely ignored their fears.
Instead, the Islamic Republic has opted to use this time to promote a dangerous troika of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and pseudoscience. Spurning U.S. offers of humanitarian assistance, earlier this year Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insinuated that Washington was behind the virus and that the U.S. is led by “charlatans and liars.” Other Iranian officials have said their country is ready and willing to offer Americans its own assistance. Khamenei’s explanation for the growth of the virus in the West? A “failure of the western social philosophy,” one of his favorite talking points. Such thinking helps to explain the rejection of help from the internationally renowned Doctors Without Borders, as well as the decision to tout potential Russo-Iranian cooperation against the coronavirus.
Other predictable talking points from the Iranian elite include the allegation that the virus may have been an American biological weapon, a point made by Hossein Salami, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
One casualty of such thinking is that pseudoscience is set to be institutionalized in higher education in Iran. The regime is mandating that university-level medical students take classes in what Tehran calls “Islamic medicine” or “traditional medicine.” Earlier this year, proponents of such medicine endorsed grossly unscientific remedies to deal with the coronavirus. These reportedly ranged from drinking camel urine to even placing a violet oil-soaked cotton-ball into the anus at night.
Similarly, Iran’s Basij paramilitary, an arm of the IRGC, has developed a so-called coronavirus scanner. According to reports, the machine could allegedly detect the virus within 100 meters during a five-second scan. The claim, as well as the haphazard machine itself, faced significant pushback from within the scientific community in Iran.
In this context Iranian authorities have focused on the coronavirus almost exclusively through the lens of regime security. As first noted by scholars of Iranian security policy, several months ago, Tehran created a new base dubbed the Imam Hassan Headquarters to oversee and coordinate state responses to those afflicted by COVID-19. By placing the IRGC – which is well versed in domestic suppression – at the commanding heights of Iran’s COVID-19 management, Tehran is signaling that it is prepared to use these forces to crush any potential protests related to the regime’s handling of the coronavirus that aren’t bought-off through the headquarters’ various charitable activities. It is also seeking to promote sympathy and support for the IRGC inside Iran, calling those IRGC members who have died from the virus “martyrs.”
Still, some protests have continued, albeit in more localized pockets and on a smaller scale. The lingering grievances, coupled with the regime’s botched response to the disease, are causing some politicians to raise the specter of wider protests in the near future. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claimed in April that a full lockdown would hurt the economy and bring the “hungry” into the streets.
Thus, Iran has been hesitant to go into a full nationwide lockdown, hoping to continue its strategy of promoting regional and non-oil trade to outlast the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy. Even prior to the onset of COVID-19, Iran’s economy was already reeling. The pandemic thus served as an accelerant to both foreign and domestic sources of pressure on the country’s economy. That is why Rouhani, when facing new data in July, again linked the policy option of a lock-down to producing more protests. Even members of Rouhani’s own government, such as the minister of health, are warning about an economically driven revolt led by lower-income Iranians.
This reality offers the Trump administration an opportunity to press its message about the incongruence between the actions of the Iranian government and the demands and needs of the Iranian people. In its messaging toward the Iranian people, Washington should highlight more than just Iran’s botched response to the coronavirus. By underscoring Iran’s conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and domestic repression, it should show how even during a pandemic, the Islamic Republic has failed to put, for lack of a better phrase, “Iran first.”