The consequences of Iran’s economic reopening are gradually becoming clear, and an even worse humanitarian crisis is still looming. That reopening began on April 11 after an inexcusably brief and weakly enforced nationwide lockdown. And just over six weeks later, the Islamic Republic recorded its largest one-day spike in new cases since the first reopening measures were put into place.
The more than 2,000 new cases surely represent the erasure of whatever gains the country had achieved through its modest restrictions on commerce and social activity. At the same time, the official record of increase is certainly influenced more strongly by the regime’s preexisting propaganda than by the reality of the situation. Tehran’s critics have long suspected that the Iranian outbreak is being downplayed, and serious opponents of the regime have come up with alternate estimates to quantify the extent of the deception.
According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, roughly 42,000 people have died from Covid-19 so far – six times more than the regime’s official statements acknowledge. This seems to be backed up by statements that have leaked into the international community from Iranian doctors, nurses, and other eyewitnesses to the outbreak. And their descriptions of overwhelmed hospitals and morgues are only made more credible by the effort that the regime has put into suppressing the disclosures.
Last week, it was formally announced that 320 people had been arrested for “spreading rumors” about the outbreak. Specific details of the charges against them were unclear, but the Iranian judiciary had warned the public about contradicting the regime official narratives very soon after the Iranian coronavirus outbreak was confirmed. Under these circumstances, “rumor mongers” face up to three years in prison, plus flogging. But as with any politically motivated charges, there exists the possibility of them being simultaneously accused of undermining national security and sentenced to even longer prison terms, or even to death.
The 320 recent arrestees are certain to represent only a portion of the total number who have been targeted for their efforts to expose the regime’s systematic mismanagement of the public health crisis. The months-long campaign of suppression makes the regime’s weak enforcement of social distancing all the more noteworthy. And it speaks to the fact that the authorities had never actually been committed to shutting down the economy to safeguard citizens’ lives.
In other words, public trust in government is less important than the ongoing misappropriation of wealth when it comes to the mullahs’ plans for holding onto power. While some hardliners have warned of the inevitable backlash that will follow a mismanaged coronavirus outbreak, their advice has generally been to step up the repression of dissent rather than to expand testing and tracing for the virus or to support medical professionals and the general public while they suffer through the conditions created by the pandemic.
Here it is important to note that regime authorities are very much in possession of the resources that they would need to provide this support. This is another topic on which the NCRI has provided highly useful insight. The coalition has examined the financial holdings of hardline entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and has noted that the amount of money at their personal disposal can be measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.
Despite this fact, it roughly two weeks after the official start of the outbreak for President Hassan Rouhani to even request the release of one billion dollars from the country’s sovereign wealth fund. It then took nearly two more weeks for Khamenei to acquiesce. In the meantime, hundreds, or perhaps thousands of Iranians died of Covid-19 while countless others were thrown into even deeper poverty by its secondary effects.
The eventual assistance was barely enough to help ordinary Iranians to stave off starvation for the few weeks during which non-essential commerce was largely closed. And when faced with the choice between extending the public assistance and reopening the economy, the authorities did not hesitate to choose the latter.
There are growing questions about the efficacy of this strategy. The NCRI, together with other activist groups and independent journalists, has helped to expose the true severity of the coronavirus outbreak, despite Tehran’s best efforts to spread its own propaganda. And while crackdowns on dissent pose a serious threat to the Iranian people, those same people have proven willing to defy previous crackdowns even when they occurred on a shockingly grand scale.
Last November, an increase in the state’s gasoline prices led to a nationwide uprising and the resumption of calls for “death to the dictator” which had become prevalent in a previous uprising in January 2018. Nervous over their evident failure to stamp out the sentiment the previous year, security forces responded to the November protests by shooting live ammunition into crowds and preventing people from receiving treatment at hospitals. It is estimated that 1,500 participants died in the clashes. Yet only two months later, Iranian students and other activists were back in the streets protesting the government’s attempt to cover up the downing of a passenger jet, and calls for regime change surfaced once again.
There is little doubt that these incidents have made the regime nervous. And there is little doubt that that nervousness has increased as a result of the conditions created by the coronavirus outbreak. However, it is very telling that even as Iran’s population confronts some of their greatest justifications for demanding a new government, Tehran’s response is only to redouble its suppression of those people while continuing to hoard wealth for itself.
The pandemic is a litmus test for the affected governments, and Iran’s behavior in the face of that crisis leads to one inescapable conclusion: that the mullahs’ regime is irredeemable and the only just policy for a democratic nation is to support the Iranian people’s efforts to force its overthrow.