Coronavirus Tests Iran’s Limits

The spread of coronavirus around the world has been rapid and disruptive, but nowhere is the outbreak as uncontrolled and chaotic as it is in Iran.

Although Iran only confirmed its first cases on February 19, the virus has spread widely and infected people from every class of Iranian society.

From the beginning of Iran’s outbreak, members of parliament and outside observers accused the Iranian state of covering up or failing to disclose the virus’ true extent. Official numbers of infected – which stand at the time of writing at just under 5,000 – do not accord with the number of reported deaths, which appear to indicate tens of thousands of cases.

Whereas authorities first claimed there had been twelve deaths from the virus, on February 24, an MP for Qom, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, claimed the death toll was at least five times higher. Iraj Harirchi, a deputy heath minister who disputed Farahani’s statistics, was later diagnosed with the virus after he had appeared visibly ill at a news conference.

The spread of COVID-19 in Iran has affected the ruling class to an unprecedented degree. As of March 3, it was estimated that eight percent of the country’s members of parliament were infected, leading to the sitting of parliament being suspended indefinitely.

In addition to Harirchi, Masoumeh Ebtekar, one of Iran’s vice-presidents; Mojtaba Zolnour, who chairs the National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee; and Pir-Hossein Kolivand, head of the country’s emergency services, have all been infected.

The death toll among the elites is also significant. Hadi Khosroshahi, a former ambassador to the Holy See, was the first among them to die. Mohammad Mirmohammadi, and advisor to the supreme leader, was next. And most recently, Hossein Sheikholeslam, a former ambassador to Syria, also succumbed to the virus.

As well as circulating among the ruling class, the virus is also present in Iran’s prisons, including the notorious Evin prison. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British prisoner of conscience, said she had the virus and described her symptoms, though Iranian officials denied her claim.

The state has taken unprecedented action to stop the virus spread among prisoners, temporarily freeing 54,000 of them in a bid to prevent the entire prison population transmitting the virus among itself.

It is speculated that the virus entered the country through the international travel of officials, who may have caught it in affected areas in China. But its spread to prisons and across the country has been attributed to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), members of which frequently move around the country and are involved in many aspects of Iranian administration and politics.

Any widespread transmission among the IRGC could substantially diminish not only the state’s capacity to act, but also to contain the virus.

Iran analysts must consider whether coronavirus will hamper the ruling class, as it struggles to treat those already affected and prevent the entire legislative and administrative class from being exposed to the virus.

The same token applies to Iran’s international system, including its militias, organised by IRGC operatives, in foreign countries. Iraq, Oman, the Unted Arab Emirates and Lebanon believe their first cases of the virus can be traced to Iran.

Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: ‘it will be interesting to see what happens to Shia militias as higher level command and clerical structures get sick and as major cities used to coordinate them (like Qom) get affected.’

The Iranian state is overstretched attempting to constrain the virus. Although the country has infrastructure to deal with natural disasters such as earthquakes, a widespread rate of infection would overwhelm the country’s healthcare systems.

Another concern among Iran’s leaders is the effect on public trust. After it appeared that the state covered up the virus’s arrival and initial spread, Iran’s people are wary of its ability to contain the virus and improve the situation.

This comes after a year in which popular protests over corruption, the state of the economy and Iran’s foreign wars were brutally repressed, and IRGC adventurism in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has become increasingly documented internationally and resented at home.

Although the outbreak in Iran represents state failure, and infection among the elites places the ruling class in some danger, Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst, said: ‘The Iranian state does not seem to be in any imminent danger. But the mishandling of the coronavirus crisis could well be the catalyst for another round of civil disobedience’.

But all of this is in the future, as Iran’s people brace for a broader outbreak, and must be seen in the shadow of remaining state power and control.

‘For now, however, it seems the population is too scared – of repression and of the virus. They’re sitting home to await developments’, Orton said.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

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