When Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed the country last week to mark Nowruz, he referred to the difficult time Iran is facing.
Khamenei described the main problem confronting Iran as an economic challenge, and expressed hope the country would counter it with the aim of ‘boosting production’.
He did not refer to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed thousands of Iranians. Despite reference to the ‘martyrs’ of the previous year, Khamenei made no mention of the destruction the virus is wreaking on Iran’s political class and, perhaps more significantly, its military elite.
Many among Iran’s political and advisory class have died and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has lost many to virus-related disease. All proving that even those with power are not immune during a pandemic.
Nasser Shabani, a senior general in the IRGC who was engaged in organising Iran’s network of regional proxies died recently after being infected by the virus. Days later, Habib Barzegari, one of the IRGC’s founders, died in the same way.
Other recent deaths among the IRGC are difficult to attribute. But there is reason to believe the following were all killed by the virus: Mohammad Haj Abolghasemi of the Basij paramilitary; Ramezan Pourghassem, head of the IRGC ground forces; Abdollah Jafarzadeh; and Farzad Tazari, for whom officials had public funerals.
Some of these men occupied the IRGC equivalent of middle management and could, under normal circumstances, be replaced. But the public weakening of the IRGC’s ranks likely echoes a deeper problem hidden from external view.
For those looking in, appearances must be maintained. Iran has continued to hold mass funerals for senior IRGC figures even during the pandemic, despite the criticism this has received from Iranian citizens. Some participants in these funerals were photographed wearing face masks.
Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst said: ‘The coronavirus outbreak does seem to have a particular concentration among IRGC and the civilian clerical elite in Iran – and since those categories include disproportionately high numbers of men with underlying vulnerabilities to this virus (advanced age, exposure to chemical weapons that have damaged their respiratory systems) the death toll has been quite significant, at least in raw numbers.’
But, he said, this may not necessarily have caused institutional collapse: ‘it’s very difficult to say how seriously the coronavirus deaths have affected the IRGC leadership because we suffer a denominator problem, or more precisely blindness.’
‘What is less in doubt is that IRGC has been responsible for spreading the coronavirus further than it needed to be, at home and abroad’, He said.
‘Domestically, IRGC has turned out large crowds for funerals of its members, and its extremist religious beliefs have led it both to deny the danger to its true believers from the virus and to disseminate conspiracy theories about its origins.’
IRGC members – who first likely transported the virus from Qom, where it entered Iran, across the country – have also continued to travel to assist Iranian allies and proxies across the Middle East.
In an indication of how the broader proxy network has responded to the virus, Lebanese Hezbollah, which has frequent contact with IRGC operatives in Syria, claims it is testing its fighters for coronavirus both before they travel to Syria and as they return to Lebanon.
All the while, despite suffering this spate of losses, the IRGC continues to echo the shape of Iranian state policy regarding the virus. The IRGC and the Iranian state maintain a detailed propaganda effort which holds that the coronavirus is an American biological weapon.
Separately, Iran laments American sanctions, which it claims are hampering its health system and ability to save lives. But its leaders notably decline offers from assistance from other countries, and expel those from non-governmental organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who try to coordinate a national response to the crisis.
MSF declared itself ‘surprised’ by the withdrawal of permission granted by the Iranian state to help.
‘The need for this intervention and the authorisations needed to start it were discussed and agreed with relevant Iranian authorities during the past weeks’, said Michel Olivier Lacharité, manager of MSF’s emergency programmes.
IRGC commander Major-General Hossein Salami painted a picture at odds with reality in an interview with state-owned press: ‘If the US citizens need help, we can help them, but we don’t need the US help’.
The IRGC may be able to sustain this level of casualties among its ranks and replace those who succumb to the virus after burying them with suitable ceremony. But the damage done to its operation – and the gulf between Iran’s propaganda and the visible trail of destruction the virus has begun to leave across Iran and the region – place the pretences of its leadership increasingly at odds with reality.
With all Iran’s people have suffered, and with the virus still killing so many, this indictment of the military class is not one they are likely to forget.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.