Coronavirus Sheds Light on Friction in Iran

Azadi Tower lights in support of China against coronavirus.

A month ago, when the coronavirus was still an abstract phenomenon for most Americans, Iran was in the middle of one of the worst outbreaks of the virus outside of China. In February, when China was experiencing untold levels of devastation, the Iranian government did not prevent travel between the two countries, seemingly to protect their diplomatic relationship. The first official acknowledgement of the virus was on February 19th, when two deaths were reported. Iran is unique in reporting a death from the virus before an infection. Four days earlier, religious Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was not kissed on the hand by a group of eulogists, a clear indication of some form of “social distancing.” Medical experts suggest that before the first official mention of the coronavirus in Iran, the virus was already rampant and that the government did little to warn its citizens about the threat.

In March, there were reports of mass burials and dozens of senior government officials dying. Due to the insular nature of the country, it was difficult for foreigners to ascertain the extent of the crisis; some said that Iran was falling apart.

For the past year, the Iranian economy has been on its knees, forced into a devastating recession by economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. Their GDP is currently contracting at 9.5% annually. Inflation is at 40%, with unemployment close to 25%. Many Iranians are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain access to basic necessities. With the coronavirus causing an enormous halt in economies worldwide, Iranian citizens are finding it even harder to make ends meet. This is only further increasing the dissatisfaction with those in power that many young Iranians feel. This all seems to be part of an American strategy to ravage Iran without a single boot on the ground, and it seems to be working. 

The coronavirus has not produced new friction in Iran but rather shed light on the division within the country. President Hassan Rouhani initially reacted to the virus with arrogance, seeming to think a disaster in Iran was impossible. In early February, he suggested Iran may soon provide ventilator masks to China. He is facing mounting criticism for his apparent ineptness in containing the virus. He has responded by placing the blame on the United States. According to Rouhani, the reason the government took so long to shut down cities was due to a nonexistent economic buffer that could not withstand a mass shutdown. Khamenei has consistently sought to undermine Rouhani, who is labeled a reformist. In 2017 Khamenei backed Rouhani’s opponent in his reelection bid. Many citizens are now calling for Khamenei to use the Islamic revolutionary guard (widely disliked for violently breaking up protests in the recent past) to forcefully maintain a nationwide shutdown.

The Supreme leader is a lifelong position whereas the President must seek reelection after four years and may do so only once. Unlike most Presidential offices, the President still must answer the Supreme Leader who is the real head of state. The President must be approved by the Supreme Leader and can be dismissed by him at any point. It is not uncommon for the President to issue a decree and for the Supreme Leader to disregard him entirely. Ali Khamenei has been the Supreme Leader of Iran since 1989, the second since the revolution. He served as the President from 1981 until then. 

While Rouhani has placed blame on the US and tried to save face and Khamenei seeks to undermine him, the people of Iran have taken action. In Tehran, masses of people attempted to set up blockades to prevent people from leaving the city and spreading the disease further. While they could not prevent the eventual spread, actions like this suggest that Iran’s youth is far more in touch with the problems facing the country than the leadership, caught in a battle for supremacy. 

Crises like the coronavirus pandemic exasperate preexisting dilemmas. Iran is an unstable country growing more unstable. Rivalry between the Supreme Leader and President are not new but have rather existed for the majority of the current government’s history. Likewise, the citizenry of Iran have been fed up with the oppressive rulers of the country for an equal amount of time. As previously stable countries descend further towards chaos, one can only guess what may happen to a country in as precarious a state as Iran.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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