Global Center for Security Studies
Coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, which emerged in the city of Wuhan in China, has affected the world in a very short time. Currently, the number of the people infected globally surpassed millions and the number of deaths hundreds of thousands. Although governments are spending efforts to fight COVID-19, the pandemic is still a serious concern.
According to the official sources of Iran, where the virus appeared and spread quickly right after China, the first case was confirmed on February 19th, 2020. During the following days the numbers of the patients and the deaths increased exponentially. In January Coronavirus had been mentioned as the cause of several deaths but the authorities had denied such claims.[i] Only a few days after the initial cases Iran had parliamentary elections. Allegedly, Iranian authorities suppressed the news regarding the virus during the election time to increase participation.
Many reasons which facilitated the spread of the virus from China to Iran can be identified; first of all, China is an important political and commercial partner of Iran. In addition to the high import-export volumes, China has large amounts of direct investments in Iran. The hesitation of the Iranian authorities in obstructing air traffic with China even after the emergence of the virus in Iran was remarkable.
Despite all the warnings and the demands, Iranian authorities resisted to the idea of a quarantine for Qom which is home to symbolically the most important places for the regime. This has facilitated the virus to spread all over the country to such an extent to concern the neighboring countries. The virus is thought to have spread to 16 countries including Azerbaijan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Oman from Iran. Thousands of Afghan people have been reported to return to their home countries for these purposes.
Another indicator of the Iranian approach to the pandemic is the Supreme Leader Khamenei’s and President Rohani’s statements on the virus, defining it as a conspiracy plotted by the enemies of Iran to create panic and turning the people against their state. Iranian state, which sees almost every topic from the perspective of security, also evaluated the possibility of COVID-19 pandemic to be a biological assault.
Despite the measures such as the closing of educational institutions, the cancelation of Friday prayers, sports and cultural events and closing of shrines; Iranian people did not care about the pandemic. Even though it was declared that a ban on intercity travels would take effect, thousands of cars created traffic jams in the highways especially during the Newroz holiday. According to the Iranian Red Crescent 8,5M Iranians traveled between different cities during Newroz holiday.
Around 100.000 detainees have been temporarily released from prisons. Additionally, there have been riots in at least eight prisons including jailbreaks.[ii] Political prisoners were excluded from such measures. According to Amnesty International at least 36 inmates died, and hundreds were wounded during the protests inside the protests about COVID-19 measures.[iii]
COVID-19 pandemic did not only affect ordinary people in Iran, several politicians, MPs, important religious authorities, and military commanders were infected and some among those lost their lives.
World Health Organization sent diagnosis kits and protective equipment to Iran in February; however, these were insufficient. In March, the WHO delegates visited Iran and Director Rick Brennan, one of the delegates, stated that the case numbers reported by Iran reflected only one fifth of the real numbers.
Iranian health sector was indirectly affected by the US sanctions; for that reason, Iran was not able to import medicine and medical equipment including diagnosis test kits for Coronavirus. On March 2nd Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif twitted a list of medical supplies his country urgently needed. [iv]
Following the request for help by Foreign Minister Zarif China, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Germany, France, UK, and Russia provided Iran with medical equipment or cash. Right after the statement from the IMF regarding the allocation of a 50-billion-dollar budget to support countries affected by the virus, Iranian Central Bank applied for a financial support of 5 billion dollars. It is still unknown whether Iran’s request will be granted since Iran found itself on the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force.
President Rohani announced a package in late March involving actions such as postponing of social security, tax, and bill payments for 3 months, delivering financial aid to three million Iranians and granting low-interest loans to four million families.
There is a growing anger among the public against the government, illustrated by street protests, because of the economic troubles due to the sanctions in effect since November 2019, the death of Qasem Soleimani, and the mistakenly shooting of a passenger plane by the Revolutionary Guard. These occurrences created greater tension between the government and the public and supposedly amplified the impacts of the Coronavirus in Iran. The government has been accused by concealing the pandemic and not taking emergency precautions since the beginning of the pandemic. Even some members of the parliament touched on these issues in their statements.
Even the commercial fields not affected by the US sanctions were affected after the borders were closed due to COVID-19. The tourism revenues will obviously be seriously affected. All economic indicators, especially import, are showing decline. Iran has already been struggling to sell its oil due to the sanctions; therefore, the outstanding decrease in oil prices will result in the diminishing of this major source of income. Under multifaceted pressure from the US, the Tehran government will most likely be more dependent on China. The pandemic may thus be creating an accelerating and strengthening impact on the already improving China-Iran relations.
Iran has been working to create public opinion against the sanctions, which they call ‘economic terrorism’, nevertheless, US Treasury keeps adding companies and individuals to the lists indicating that the US is not changing its position on this topic. The US will be reluctant to grant Iran such a leverage to be used in domestic as well as international politics.
A report drafted by academics from the Shariff Technical University, one of the prominent educational institutions in Iran, states that if Iran does not implement quarantine and the public does not take the preventive measures seriously, the number of fatal cases may exceed millions.
Another report drafted by the Iranian Parliamentary Research Center, an official institution, involves significant evaluations and criticism about the pandemic and its possible consequences; the report even states that the real number of cases is around eight to ten times more than the declared ones. The pandemic is expected to last for another year and a second wave might occur.[v]
The COVID-19 pandemic will probably increase the economic problems, social unrest, and political instability in Iran. Considering its strong political and military presence in the region especially in Syria, it would be plausible to predict that Iran will struggle to maintain its power because of the Coronavirus.
Iran was caught off-guard to the pandemic and it is accepted by almost everyone that it was not properly managed. This lack of success by the Iranian government may also be seen as a human rights violation since it endangers public health. Iran’s structural problems such as inefficiency in public management, waste, inadequacy of public officials, and nepotism have been apparent within the context of the Corona crisis. It is likely that Iran’s spiral of crises will have consequences affecting the whole region.