Iran is one of the nations hardest hit by the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19. According to the government’s most recent statistics, there are more than one hundred thousand people afflicted and more than six thousand dead. These estimates likely underplay the true scale of the problem.
Incoherent Policies, Public Frustration
The Islamic Republic’s mitigation measures have been halting and ineffective. Its response to the pandemic has been a mixture of responsible warnings from public health officials, inconsistent policies from the president, and half-baked conspiracy theories from the supreme leader. All this has left the public unsure about how best to behave. Given that Iran is the epicenter of the virus in the Middle East, its inability to coherently deal with the pandemic is endangering the entire region.
Even before the pandemic, Iran suffered from a severe economic recession due to the reimposition of sanctions by the Donald J. Trump administration. Before the sanctions, Iran sold over two million barrels of oil per day, but that has been reduced to less than two hundred thousand, and the collapse of oil prices has further strained its economic outlook. The public was already frustrated with the government’s performance, and that frustration has grown with the mismanaged pandemic response.
Mixed Messages: Crisis or Calm?
Iran’s leaders have at some times stressed the urgency of the situation and at other times pronounced the crisis all but over. On occasion, they have also concocted absurd conspiracy theories.
President Hassan Rouhani and officials at the Ministry of Health and Medical Education have been the most responsible officials in Iran, but even their behavior has highlighted the government’s shortcomings. Rouhani originally downplayed the crisis and did not impose a lockdown as other countries in the Middle East have done. During the March celebrations of the New Year, one of the country’s biggest holidays, many Iranians traveled across the country, contributing to the spread of the virus. Rouhani has since grown more cautious, telling a recent press conference that “no one knows when the virus will end and thus we have to follow the advice of the medical community.” Yet in late April, Iran began reopening shopping centers and government offices despite concerns that the virus is hardly under control.
Amid such mixed messaging, the Iranian public has been reluctant to comply with medical professionals’ warnings, such as calls for social distancing or wearing masks. Iran’s minister of health, Saeed Namaki, recently aired out his grievances at a news conference: “I have complaints about some of our citizens who assume that things are normal. It is true that we have had good results at a time of economic crisis, and even during double-digit fatalities, hospitals still had capacity. But all this does not mean corona is over.” Yet his ministry has refused to publish the number of cases in individual provinces and only issues aggregate figures that many suspect are understated. This prevents experts from understanding precisely how the virus has migrated in Iran and where the most at-risk populations are.
By far the most reckless actors have been the conservatives, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Khamenei has mocked offers of medical assistance from the United States, saying that “[the United States] might send people as doctors and therapists, maybe they would want to come here and see the effects of the poison they have produced in person.” He has even suggested that the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians, which [the United States has] obtained through different means.” Also notable have been the boastful claims of General Hussein Salami, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He recently displayed a device called Mustaan that he claimed could detect the coronavirus.
Iran’s premature reopening and its government’s incompetence in addressing the pandemic are likely to lead to a spike in infections and deaths. The government, which faced waves of public protests last year over its economic mismanagement, will likely see more pressure from a disgruntled public.