Iran and the Coronavirus: From Denial to National Mobilization

Iran was slow to respond to the Corona crisis. Liora Hendelman-Baavur’s essay traces the evolution of the Islamic Republic’s mobilization, identifying how its reaction has been consistent with a historic pattern of crisis-response. This article is part of "The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis".

Temporary graves in Iran during COVID-19 pandemic.
Fars News Agency. From Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 4.0]

Iran has been badly battered by the coronavirus and the Middle East country hardest hit by the cri­sis to date. By mid-March, according to an Iranian local health spokesperson, one person was dying from the coronavirus every 10 minutes, and some 50 people were becoming infected with the virus every hour. These figures, which occurred in the aftermath of the outbreaks in China and Italy, made Iran an early target of international media attention. Early assessments of Iran’s initial reac­tion to the coronavirus were negative and primar­ily leveled against the regime’s indifference and proclivity to prioritize ideology over public health. Much of the blame was attributed to the govern­ment’s mounting failure to contain the virus; its inability to coordinate effectively with the prov­inces; and its failure to inform the public of the gravity of the situation. However, by the end of March, the regime had shifted from indifference to national mobilization with the assistance of the armed forces and international aid.

Iran reported its first confirmed cases of infections on February 19, yet the regime made no decisive attempt to break chains of transmission in order to mitigate the outbreak. As the situation rapid­ly deteriorated and the leadership scrambled to explain the situation, some reports pointed to Chinese clerical students and workers in the holy city of Qom (which has a population of 1.2 million) as the possible source. Later accounts claimed it originated with an Iranian businessperson who returned infected from China. Government offi­cials blamed the outbreak on international eco­nomic sanctions, and there were those, like the IRGC’s Commander Hossein Salami, who went as far as accusing the U.S. of waging biological war­fare on Iran. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that American economic terrorism is supplement­ed by its medical terrorism, and relentlessly tried to convince European states and other countries to pressure the U.S. to ease its “maximum pres­sure” policy on Iran during the crisis on humani­tarian grounds.

On February 21, three days after the govern­ment’s first acknowledgment of the outbreak and public confirmation that two people had died from the coronavirus, elections were held for the Islamic Republic’s 11th parliament without admin­istering any health precautions taken to protect voters. Although the turnout was relatively low (42.57%, the first-time turnout dipped below 50% since 1979), the elections had a significant role in the spread of the epidemic which infected scores of officials, including 23 members of parliament.

On February 23, the government began imple­menting preventive measures, including canceling public events and gatherings and closing schools and universities but only in half of the country’s provinces. In Tehran (which has about 9 million residents), snack shops and water fountains were ordered to close, and public transportation to be disinfected daily. Shortly after, the parliament was temporarily closed down as well. Howev­er, even after the media reported the virus has spread throughout the country and Iran’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, and the head of the country’s emergency medical services, Pirhossein Kolivand, were both infected with Covid-19, the government downplayed the gravity of the crisis and merely recommended citizens to maintain personal hygiene and stay home.

Iran’s restricted media environment generated a surge of rumors, disinformation, and fake news. Two recent episodes —the November 2019 pop­ular protests, and the January 2020 downing of a passenger plane by the IRGC’s air defense— have shown that in the face of major crises, the Islam­ic Republic does not shy away from concealing and even fabricating reality. Social media reports claim the official tally vastly underestimates the true number of coronavirus cases in the country.

Tweets by local health workers exposed the re­gime’s efforts to downplay the impact of the virus, the shortage of medical staff, lack of protection measures and test kits in clinics and hospitals. To curb this kind of “fake information,” and prevent coronavirus panic, the Iranian Cyber Police joined the crisis management taskforce. By the end of February, the police unit announced the arrest of 24 suspects for distributing false news and warn­ing issued to additional 118 internet users, among them nurses and other public health workers.

The government’s policy of withholding informa­tion reduced public confidence, leading many Ira­nians to ignore official guidance that could have helped contain the pandemic. The Health Minis­try’s announcement that checkpoints would be used to limit travel between major cities during the two-week vacation of Nowruz (the Persian New Year), starting March 20, was disregarded by citizens and according to reports three to four million people in Iran were traveling during the holiday without any restrictions.

During the fatal period of the initial outbreak, President Rouhani’s government was hesitant and vague in responding to the crisis. On February 1, the Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli an­nounced that all flights to and from China have been halted until further notice. Nevertheless, between February 4 and February 23, Mahan Air, which is believed to be under the direct control of the IRGC, had 55 flights to Beijing, Shanghai, Gwangju, and Shenzen. The exposure of Mahan Air’s mysterious flights sparked a public outrage, yet China was the first country to send health specialists, humanitarian supplies and medical equipment to assist Iran in its fight against the pandemic.

The outbreak has also sparked intense debate between the government and ultra-conservative Shi’i clerics, who strongly resisted the cancella­tion of religious events including Friday prayers. In Qom, for example, Ayatollah Mohammad Saee­di, head of the Fatima Masumeh mausoleum, in­sisted that places of worship should remain open despite the outbreak.

By mid-March, the alarming rates of infection and death in Iran forced the regime to change its tac­tics and launch a national mobilization campaign and a “smart social distancing” plan. The army, IRGC and the paramilitary Basij forces were autho­rized to take command of the country’s response to the pandemic, including the enforcement of quarantine regulations, setting up a field hospi­tal at the international exhibition center in North Tehran, and inaugurating a factory reportedly ca­pable of producing 4 million masks per day. As the struggle to contain the Corona-virus contin­ues, on April 14, the death toll in Iran dropped to double-digit figures for the first time in a month, and the state gradually reopened the economy. On April 27, Iran reopened its borders (except with Turkmenistan) to renew regional trade.

For the past 41 years, the Islamic Republic has proved resilient in the face of domestic and for­eign pressures. In 2019 alone, Iran faced full-scale crises streaming from political unrest, regional tensions, economic sanctions, and a series of nat­ural disasters (floods, locusts, air pollution and earthquakes). The Covid-19 outbreak activated the Islamic Republic’s default strategy in confronting crises. For several weeks, the leadership denied and downplayed the spread of the virus. Official indifference was followed by Tehran’s trademark tactic of shifting the blame to the regime’s adver­saries. Casting fault on others was coupled with restrictions on information (curtailing what it deemed as fake news and silencing critics), and then came complacency and propaganda under­scoring the regime’s achievements in containing the crisis via internal solidarity and national re­silience. The latest figures indicate a drop in new virus infections in Iran [see Figure 1 and Figure 2]; however, just as Iran’s endemic corruption, economic mismanagement, and currency crisis have contributed to triggering civil protests in the country since at least 2017, the lingering effects of the coronavirus are likely to gnaw at the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy in unpredictable ways.

Daily New Deaths in Iran
Daily New Deaths in Iran.
Source: World Meters Info, June 2, 2020.

New Cases vs. New Recoveries in Iran
New Cases vs. New Recoveries in Iran
Number of newly infected vs. number of recovered and discharged patients each day.
Source: World Meters Info, June 2, 2020