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International responses to the COVID-19 (the corona virus) have been shaped according to national politics and priorities. This article looks at the response of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran reported its first case of the COVID-19 on 19 February 2020 and by 9 March 2020 had over 40,000 confirmed cases in one of the worst outbreaks in the world. Yet, these numbers are uncertain as the authorities are unwilling to share information.
The epicentre of the outbreak was the Holy City of Qom and COVID-19 spread quickly through the country during the New Year (Nowrooz) holiday carried by family travellers. Iranian medical staff quickly gripped the virus as a medical problem. The Iranian Government and religious authorities did not understand the scale of the pandemic and saw the consequences through an economic lens in stark contrast to the medical profession.
This article argues that Iran sees the pandemic as an economic problem rather than a public health or human security issue. Secondly, it identifies a tension between the people and the state with low level acts of defiance. Stemming from this, it is also clear the prominent parts of the Iranian State, namely the Revolutionary Guards, see the outbreak as an opportunity to reinforce their domestic political position and re-gain public support. As such, Iran provides an interesting case study in the fight against the virus, but one that has to be read against a specific backdrop and security mindset.
Iran’s limited response to COVID-19 also shows that the country might not be well placed to face non-traditional threats in the future.
It’s the Sanctions!
In the international debate, foreign policy analysists were quick to identify sanctions as impacting the Iranian ability to response to COVID-19. For example, medical staff are in need of all kind of material that cannot be imported due to pressure from the United States. This situation has been worsened by what has been called ‘medical warfare’ led by the United States Government as it imposed new sanctions despite the request from some Congress members to ease the existing ones. The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made clear that the Trump administration would maintain a strategy of maximum pressure on Iran throughout the crisis to force compliance with nuclear disarmament.
The international response, however, has been more humanitarian best demonstrated by the March 2020 delivery of medical equipment by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. This was the first transaction conducted under the Instex trading mechanism and provided some relief to Iran. Other countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea have also sent medical aide. Despite the international effort, the Iranian regime has been unwilling to impose needed social lockdown policies or enact social distancing.
The reluctance of Iranian President Rouhani to impose a lockdown on the country is a direct consequence of continued sanctions. The heavily-sanctioned Iranian economy would likely never fully recover from a proper lockdown as productivity would collapse. Market forces around the world were not designed to cope with a pandemic and the Iranian economy never really recovered from the 1979 Revolution due to a combination of war, natural disasters and sanctions. Social confinement, or quarantine, is therefore, unpopular as many Iranians struggle to make ends meet. The State would also be unable to bail everyone out were its citizens left without an earning and if further businesses were to collapse. As such, a strategy to contain COVID-19 would directly challenge the Iranian social order and create an additional threat to the regime.
The authorities consequently view the pandemic as an economic security issue rather than a human security and health issue. The Islamic Republic isn’t the only country to have focused on protecting its economy, Sweden for example has not enacted social lockdown policies, but in Iran the context is significantly different. In contrast to the United Kingdom, and others, President Rouhani has argued that economic activities, production and health protocols can co-exist; Iran cannot afford to close its economy. The Iranian authorities fear the reaction of a population that is exhausted by sanctions if their livelihoods are stopped in response to the virus. They fear the collapse of a staggering economy more than they fear COVID-19 as a pandemic.
On 14 March 2020, under growing pressure from medical professional, Iran attempted to impose a limited social lockdown by closing schools, postponing large events, and even Friday prayers. A proper lockdown was enforced at the end of March, only to be partially lifted on the 08 April 2020. The delayed decision to enact the lockdown, and to actively engage with the virus, is the result of shifts in internal politics.
President Rouhani is still reeling from the return of the sanctions he worked so hard on eliminating. Over 2019, he faced an opposition conservative victory in the Iranian Parliament and several major international incidents. From tensions in the Gulf to the downing of flight 752, his authority is wavering against heavy pressure. Rouhani’s Administration is, therefore, struggling to properly counter an internal opposition that has been quite vocal about avoiding a lockdown. As such, Rouhani is keen to fully re-open Iran against medical advice to avoid further political tension explaining the early lifting of restrictions.
This raises the question of power in Iran during crisis situations. The chaos around COVID-19 has enabled political actors to position themselves in time of crisis, seeking their own self-promotion. This is not unique to Iran and politics has been an influential factor in other countries. In France, for example, President Macron is facing criticism for allowing the first round of local elections to take place. However, Iran constitutes a case study because of the continuous confrontation between political groups and the impact it has on managing the spread and the response to the virus. In short, the context in Iran means that the State cannot, or will not, focus on the pandemic as a human security issue. It can only view it from an economic perspective.
Despite the lack of an effective Government response, large parts of the Iranian upper and middle-classes choose to isolate at the start of the pandemic. Yet, in a society numb from successive emotional shocks, political scandals, near-war experiences, others chose to defy the Government’s official guidance, either because they need to work or in direct political opposition.
This reaction is partly explained by a campaign of disinformation, or at least public encouragement, that led Iranians to believe they are safe from the virus. Several public figures in charge quickly understood how unpopular, for cultural and economic reasons, it would be to prevent Iranians travelling to family gatherings over for the Iranian New Year. This is why these local figures, such as the Mayor of Tehran, actively encourage citizens to keep living normally. Others feared that the closure of religious institutions, in particular mosques, would undermine their local power. Some also denied the virus was dangerous to ensure that people would go and vote in Parliamentary elections. The authorities were also torn between scientific data and religion, with local clerics undermining Rouhani by stating the virus could be fought through prayers. Besides, religious authorities used the State apparatus to prevent communication on the virus, going as far as deploying Revolutionary Guards’ security services in hospitals, deliberately exposing them to the virus. The purpose was to control communication at a time the leaders were in disagreement about the response to the virus.
Whilst the population may be defiant, a large proportion of the population is vulnerable due to an increase in respiratory illnesses caused by heavy air pollution, or veterans of the Iran-Iraq War who were exposed to gas and have weak lungs. Conspiracy theories have circulated on the social media and, critically, have also emanated from public figures such as the Guide, or Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini. Khameini publicly claimed that COVID-19 was sent to Iran by the U.S. in a variation of a common argument against the Great Satan, a move designed to shore up domestic support for the regime’s response. The Iranian Government also revoked Doctors Without Borders’ permission to create a hospital on the basis that the organisation would have shared information to the outside world.
Public non-compliance with lockdown rules isn’t unique to Iran. Yet, against the domestic context explained above it has a more significant meaning. In contrast to other nations, it demonstrates that the Iranian authorities have lost legitimacy and trust among the population.
Iran’s resilience against natural disasters is well established due to the country’s history of earthquakes and flooding. Yet, the authorities have been less efficient in confronting pandemics. This is due to a national security strategy that focuses on classic security threats at the cost of human security.
For example, Iranian doctors are trained to be deployed in war zones and treat war-inflicted wounds. Their training doesn’t extend to pandemics showing the priority of resilience planners. The non-inclusion of health in the security agenda isn’t new and the Iranian authorities have also been slow to react to other health crises such as drugs, alcohol, and the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The Iranian Government also made some critical mistakes in its run up to the COVID-19 outbreak. The head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society was demoted in December 2019 after a corruption scandal and the President only appointed a new head in February. This created a leadership void in one of Iran’s most powerful resilience institutions stopping them from operating properly as the virus took hold. It demonstrates how the Iranian regime does not prioritise or consider human security.
The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran aren’t the only ones equipped with a weak resilience mechanism to pandemics. Iran is different because the nation lacks a policy and legal framework to support national resilience. The country doesn’t have a specific policy to cope with pandemics and hasn’t relied on Islamic law to reinforce health security. In the past, Iran’s leaders have created programmes for addictions or for HIV/AIDS patients relying on Islamic scriptures to do so. There are scriptures in Islam to cope with pandemics that concern travel bans, quarantine, health costs. Iranian leaders have therefore a legal toolbox available but have been reluctant to act because of the economic crisis identified above. This inability to build resilience around health security shows that the system lacks flexibility to adapt to new threats. Taking a wider view, this raises questions about the Islamic Republic ability to absorb future security and defence shocks.
The US-Iran conflict through other means
It is clear that leaders of the Islamic Republic are more comfortable continuing their engagement in a proxy war and feeding the tensions with the United States than Western states may be. The United States conducts a similar policy, showing thereby that the two countries are locked in the same security framework, unable to step away or make progress because it serves domestic political interests.
In this regard, the role of the Revolutionary Guards (IRCG) is to be noted. The Guards, but also the Basij, a paramilitary voluntary militia, have reacted faster than civilian and religious authorities. They have been critical in enforcing social distancing or providing masks sewn by female Basij. The Revolutionary Guards seem to understand the human security aspect of COVID-19 in a way the Iranian authorities do not. They are seen disinfecting the streets, breaking up gatherings, and mobilising society to fight the virus. In a stark contrast to Government policy, Brigadier General Gholamreza Soleimani, the commander of the Basij Organisation, declared the nation was at war with COVID-19 and displayed his understanding of the pandemic as a human security issue.
This response wasn’t only been because some Revolutionary Guards’ leaders and war veterans have died from COVID-19. In the crises they see an opportunity to re-gain public legitimacy after recent events which have cast a shadow on their role such as repression and the shooting down of an Ukrainian airliner. This is of importance as the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij are powerful and constantly seek to influence Iranian internal politics.
The debate about state responses to COVID-19 is universal and each state will adopt different policies shaped by domestic context. Iran is special in that regard because of its national inability to disengage from a security and defence narrative to adapt to a threat to human security. In contrast to many countries, the top priority of the Iranian regime remains the protection of the Islamic Republic, rather than the protection of the population. This is not because the regime lacks the tools to response. Rather, the domestic political environment, coupled with a growing level of public discontent, have combined to ensure that the regime cannot, or will not, adopt to the threat as a health pandemic.
Dr Anicée Van Engeland
Dr Anicee Van Engeland holds a PhD in Islamic Studies, Politics and Law from the Institute d'Etudes Politiques in Paris. Anicee has held visiting lectureships at Cardiff University, Nagoya University and azad University. She has also held research positions at Harvard Law School and the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies. She has an expertise in Iranian affairs, Islamic law and human rights. She is currently the senior Lecturer in International Security at Cranfield University.