Iran has now been officially struggling with COVID-19 for over a month. Even before SARS-CoV-2 (known as coronavirus) made its grand entrance into Iran, the country was embattled by a series of crises. In the first week of 2020, the assassination of Qassem Soleimani shook the nation. Besides that, the “accidental” shooting of the Ukrainian airplane by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps spawned a government cover-up, shifting accusations and blame to the USA for the plane catastrophe instead of owning up to the amateur “mistake.”
One barrier to a strong coordinated response to the outbreak is Iran’s dual power structure. Although Hassan Rouhani is the elected president of the country, the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, holds the reins and is the final word on all matters. Currently, neither seems willing to take the tough approach needed to combat the spread of coronavirus. Their announcements are often conflicting, causing some to hope that the IRGC will step in to gain control of the situation. While many European police and military forces are cooperating with their respective governments to try to stem the outbreak, there are concerns about how such an arrangement might transpire in Tehran where the opposing factions seem incapable of synergy.
Despite the reports of deaths from COVID-19, Rouhani announced that there were no plans to place areas affected by the outbreak under quarantine. The Shia shrines in Qom remained open, and his government seemed more focused on the upcoming elections, putting polling ahead of the people. Just after the elections, cultural events were cancelled for one week, universities in Tehran were shut very discreetly, and Friday prayer suspended nationwide. The “benefit” of downplaying relations with China amid growing concerns over the situation in Hubei and the lack of transparency with the Iranian public prior to elections was a triumph for hardliners. With an abysmal voter turnout of just 42.57 per cent, citizens made a statement on their dissatisfaction with Rouhani’s incapability of dealing with the economic crisis, ongoing corruption at every administrative level and losing face amidst international scrutiny.
Yet instead of providing a much needed direct response, Khamenei and the IRGC keep disseminating propaganda blaming the US and Israel for the virus. This continued anti-American ideology makes it impossible for the international community to engage with Tehran to help slow the spread of the virus. It seems that at a time when international cooperation is needed, Khamenei’s obstinacy is resulting in isolationism which will cost many lives.
Arguably, Iran is not the only one to blame for the situation. The chronic political conflict with the US has directly contributed to Iran’s highest mortality rates of COVID-19 cases in the Middle East. The severe sanctions imposed by Trump after his administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal) stunted the Iranian economy for months. And now, in a time of a public health crisis, Iran is incapable of accessing the global market and instead has to rely on international aid. The US claims its sanctions do not prevent humanitarian aid from entering the country. However, in reality, any bank that wants to do business in the US knows it will be punished by Washington if it has anything to do with Iran. This denies Iranians access to essential medicines, not to mention necessary hospital supplies.
In an unprecedented time, when it seems pragmatic to extend the proverbial olive branch to your nemesis for the duration of the pandemic, neither side seems willing to make concessions. Iranian proxies in Iraq continued launching missile attacks at Camp Taji where US and coalition troops are based. Despite the Trump administration’s claim that a massive response in retaliation to the new attacks on US troops is not the right move amidst Iran’s massive struggles, Trump cannot afford to show any weakness in front of his electorate ahead of the November 2020 elections, and makes no compromises from his “maximum pressure” policy on Iran. He is still keen on squeezing Iran’s shattered economy by extending the sanctions to cover five UAE companies which bought oil from Iran in the last year, despite calls from China and other countries to ease the existing sanctions on humanitarian grounds.
This is a hard hit for Iran, as the UAE has recently facilitated the delivery of medical aid from the World Health Organisation. Kuwait and the UAE have reached out to Tehran to provide assistance, a surprising move given the countries’ strained relations, especially as they claim they have coronavirus cases which originated from Iran. If previous rivals can put aside their differences, when will Rouhani and Khamenei, and more broadly the US and Iran, heed the calls to engage in ‘virus diplomacy?’
Despite Iran’s previous aggressive approach in the Middle East, its regional neighbours have provided offers of medical aid. Even some European countries, defiant of the reaction of their US allies, offer whatever assistance they can. Their humanitarian approach will reap dividends later, as Iran will not forget who stepped in to help at their darkest hour. It may even be an opportunity to fix damaged relations once the global world order stands down from the epidemic combat mode.
Straightforward diplomacy between the US and Iran might seem unlikely as both sides need to flex what little strength they have left, but a third party could mediate this standoff to avoid them losing face when concessions are being made. This could be one of the wisest moves that Iranian authorities should consider to regain their severely damaged standing in the country. Besides, in what would be a victory for Rouhani, this could reopen diplomacy channels between Iran and the US despite Trump’s determined and uncompromising manner, albeit temporarily.
Iranian mismanagement and imprudence have resulted in a large loss of life, including some important figures from governmental, military, religious and academic circles. The hope is that Rouhani’s administration can find a way to proceed unhampered by Khamenei, whom on the other hand is eager to undermine any efforts at a sensible solution and does not want to engage in dialogue with outside powers. If partisan (in)actions and apathy, lack of willingness for (inter)national cooperation and the inability to claim responsibility for policing the public within its borders is not corrected, Iran will hit a point of no return.
By maintaining its political status quo, the Iranian authorities are hampering their credibility. The priority of both factions should not be maintaining power, but instead the welfare of its people. They could even exploit the humanitarian crisis and put more international pressure on Trump to temporarily ease the crippling sanctions to allow Iran a fair fight against coronavirus. There is no question that the Iranian authorities need to step in and accept responsibility for the situation spiralling out of control. The government has warned that if people do not stop ignoring public health guidelines and cease travel, “millions” could die. With the total number of coronavirus cases in the country close to 20,000 the health care infrastructure in Iran is strained and near collapse. According to the Iranian health ministry, one person is dying every 10 minutes from the disease. When will Rouhani and Khamenei and other world leaders do the right thing and work together to stop the increasing body count?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.