On Saturday, many citizens of Iran returned to work for the first time since last month’s Nowruz holiday. The brief pause represents only a fraction of the measures that other Middle Eastern countries have taken to address the coronavirus pandemic, even though the Islamic Republic is suffering the region’s worst outbreak, and perhaps the worst outbreak in the world.
Iranian government authorities had urged people to avoid travel and large gatherings during the two-week-long New Year celebration that ended on April 4. But they had done little to enforce those recommendations.
The inconsistent message and the cavalier return to business, as usual, are both typical of the Iranian government’s response to the pandemic. Official records indicate that COVID-19 has sickened tens of thousands of Iranians and has killed well over 4,000. But critics of the theocratic regime believe that the actual figures are much higher and that Tehran’s penchant for secrecy, corruption, and self-dealing is a major reason why.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran has examined hospital records and spoken to Iranian doctors and nurses to carefully track the number of coronavirus-related fatalities. As of Monday, it placed the figure at around 30,000. The coalition has also estimated that the total number of coronavirus cases in Iran exceeded one million before the end of March. And this is a testament to the outbreak had begun much earlier than Tehran will acknowledge.
Documents obtained by the NCRI show that the first suspected coronavirus patients were admitted to Iranian hospitals in the final week of January. Yet regime officials made no official statements about an outbreak until February 19. And even then, they went out of their way to downplay the threat, and even urged citizens of all age and all health conditions to participate in parliamentary elections three days later.
By reopening the Iranian economy on Saturday, the regime was returning to its original strategy of downplaying the public health threat. And they did so in full awareness of the long-term impact that it is likely to have on public attitudes toward the regime. Opposition to the clerical dictatorship already appeared to be at an all-time high going into this crisis. Whenever the dust settles and it becomes clear that the regime had urged its people to resume normal activities when potentially millions of Iranians were still infectious with COVID-19, that opposition is sure to grow even further.
But from the regime’s perspective, this is the less devastating of two potential outcomes. If the economy was left closed and the people were left without government support, the backlash against the regime would be not only greater but also more immediate. Up to this point, support has not been forthcoming, and it is not in the regime’s nature to change its ways.
It may be tempting to attribute this miserliness to the effects of US sanctions. Certainly, the regime itself has been trafficking in that narrative since the crisis was first acknowledged. But in reality, sanctions have never barred Tehran from purchasing medicine or other humanitarian goods for its people. And authorities have ample sources of wealth with which to do so.
Last week, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei approved the withdrawal of one billion dollars from the nation’s sovereign wealth fund. But the move came two weeks after a request from President Rouhani, which in turn came at least a month after it was clear that COVID-19 was going to be a tremendous challenge for the Iranian people. Hundreds of billions of additional dollars remain untapped, some of it belonging to religious foundations under the supreme leader’s direct control and some of it distributed among shell companies serving the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
There is no reason to think that the mullahs will use that money to buttress the domestic economy or to safeguard public health.
Tehran’s reticence to support the public was explained last month in a report from a hardline think tank called Asra. That report admitted that the initial mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak would surely lead to more uprisings along the lines of those which spread across the entire country in January 2018 and November 2019. Rather than undertaking the impossible task of undoing the damage, Asra recommended that regime authorities prepare to further tighten control over society and put down any protests that emerge in the months ahead.
Tehran understands that one way or another, the current crisis will lead to more anti-government sentiment and more calls for regime change. And they are currently trying to take actions that will push the next uprising as far into the future as possible while preparing for a violent response.