In Iran, the coronavirus pandemic continues to hit hard. Over the weekend (March 14, 2020), 1365 new cases of the virus infection (347 of them in Tehran province) were registered. According to official data, the number of people infected with the virus so far (16 March) in Iran stands at almost 15,000. The Iranian health minister said that so far, 853 people have died, and 4996 have recovered. (Some analysts discount the official statistics and believe the figures are really much larger.) At present, Iran has reportedly conducted about 6,000 coronavirus tests a day, and in the coming weeks, the number will rise to 10,000.2 Iran has so far received over 200,000 test kits, out of which 80,000 have been used.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps reported that so far, some of its members have died in this “Health Jihad,” and some Basij members (the Revolutionary Guard’s volunteer arm) have also died while serving the population. Among those who died from the Revolutionary Guard is Farhad Tazari, the former deputy of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ Political Bureau, who also held positions in the intelligence division of the Revolutionary Guard. On March 16, 2020, Amir Ramkho, a senior Revolutionary Guards pilot who was involved in the Syrian war and was decorated with the signature of the late Quds Force Commander, Qasem Soleimani, died of coronavirus. The Revolutionary Guards stated that Ramkho “was at the helm of the forces operating in Syria, fighting ISIS, and also supported the forces protecting Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in Damascus.” (Ramkho’s obituary was published in the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim news agency.3)
The Iranian health minister said the Iranian government would soon launch a new pilot in its efforts to deal with the coronavirus, adding that people with the disease’s symptoms could go to the www.salamat.gov.ir website and provide their details and describe their symptoms.4 He said the details would then be checked and a reply will be returned to the sender. The deputy minister of health said that one of the major centers of the disease, the city of Qom, is under control. Some mosques in the city serve as central places for pilgrimage, such as the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh (the house of the Seventh Imam) and the Jamakaran Mosque, (where the “Well of Requests” is located and where the red flag was raised after the Soleimani assassination). They were closed until further notice.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said that there was no intention of placing Tehran under quarantine and that the commercial areas would continue to operate within prescribed plans. While senior officials refuse to announce quarantine across the country, local Iranian authorities in some provinces (Khuzestan, Kermanshah) declared mass closure of public places (supermarkets, bakeries, pharmacies and public transportation) to curb the spread of the coronavirus. A poll conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) revealed that over 89 per cent of Iranians agree with locking down the worst affected areas Tehran and Qom.5
Police Chief Hossein Ashtari warned that Iran’s “enemies” were trying to spread rumors about closures to cause panic among residents and create a shortage of commodities. Meanwhile, arrests are ongoing among propagators of false news and residents who hoard masks and disinfectants. The Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization said it had identified 150 disseminators of rumors about the coronavirus in the Fars Province, and some had been indicted.
Rouhani: The Sanctions Make It Hard to Fight the Virus
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani praised the government’s “impressive” efforts in dealing with the virus and instructed the country’s media to echo these efforts. He said the government was acting resolutely despite the continuation of the “inhumane ”maximum pressure policy of sanctions imposed by the United States.6 Rouhani even sent a letter to world leaders stating that under the current circumstances, Iran is facing major obstacles in dealing with the virus in the face of U.S. sanctions. Rouhani urged leaders to oppose the continued sanctions in light of the fight against the virus. At the same time, Foreign Minister Javid Zarif tweeted that Rouhani had updated the world leaders on the difficulties facing Iran in its fight against the virus in the face of continued sanctions.7 He sent a letter in a similar vein to the UN Secretary-General criticizing the collective punishment policy of the United States and the continuing damage to the Iranian economy and the Iranian efforts to fight the virus: “The virus does not recognize geographical or political boundaries, and we must not do so.”
Following the instructions of Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei, Iran’s military will begin a biological war defense drill on March 15, 2020. Khamenei said that the source of the coronavirus might be a biological weapon, and the planned exercise could increase Iran’s strength and capabilities. Gen. Hossein Salami, the Commander of the Revolutionary Guard, said (March 5, 2020) that the coronavirus may be a biological weapon developed by the United States aimed at damaging China, Iran, and other parts of the world.8
Adjustments in the Majles (Iranian Parliament)
In the meantime, Iran is trying to maintain its internal affairs despite the virus, and the Majles (parliament) is trying to operate online without the presence of its members in the plenum. The Majles ceased operations on February 28, 2020, at the request of the minister of health for fear of spreading the virus by Majles members. The Guardian Council of the Constitution announced that the second round of Majles elections has been postponed – at the direction of the Ministry of Interior, and it will be held on September 11, 2020, rather than as scheduled on April 17, 2020. It should be noted that the Majles did not have enough time to approve the budget for next year, which is due to open on March 20, but the Leader instructed the budget committee members to accept it. The budget was ultimately approved by the Expediency Discernment Council of the System (a branch set up to resolve disputes between the Majles and the Guardian Council) after the Guardian Council of the Constitution rejected it.
One Majles member accused Iran’s Mahan Airlines of being responsible for introducing the virus through its flights from China and urged the Justice Department to investigate the issue. The Iranian transport minister rejected the claims. The airline itself claimed it transported students and medical equipment from China. In this context, it was also reported that the border between Iran and Pakistan was closed and that 30,000 Afghans who resided in Iran returned to Afghanistan following the outbreak of the virus.
Among the Victims of the Coronavirus: Activists and Government Officials
Economist, author, and social activist, Fariborz Raisdana died at the age of 72 after being exposed to the coronavirus. Raisdana, who holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, authored numerous books in the field of economics, taught at universities in Iran and the United Kingdom, and wrote several books in the field of economics and politics.
Raisdana was arrested in 2010 after he criticized in a BBC interview a plan to reform subsidies (“an illusion that will bring disaster on the economy”) presented by the government of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad. He was sentenced (2012) to a year in prison at the notorious Evin Prison after being charged with membership with the Iranian Writers’ Association, making statements condemning the regime, and giving interviews to the BBC and VOA. In recent years, Raisdana was a critic of corruption in the country.
At the same time, Ayatollah Hashem Bathaei-Golpayegani, a member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts (empowered to designate, inspect and dismiss the Supreme Leader) was reported dead from the coronavirus.9
The Economic Difficulties and the Crisis of Trust Will Deepen
Iran is facing the coronavirus in the middle of a deep economic crisis due to U.S. sanctions and a continuing crisis of confidence between the population and the regime following rising fuel prices, the elimination of Qasem Soleimani, the downing of the Ukrainian aircraft, and the regime’s concealment of information on these and other issues.
Targeting the virus in Iran leads to another slowdown in the Iranian economy due to restrictions of movement between Iran and neighboring countries, as well as the closure of some of Iran’s borders for fear of the spread of the virus, even against China, which is one of Iran’s major trade partners. Open borders were critical to the Iranian economy because of U.S. sanctions. Iraq and China have been Iran’s primary export source, and China and the UAE have been its main sources of imports. Afghanistan was the biggest trading partner of Iran in 2019, so the decision of the National Security Council in Afghanistan to temporarily close the sea and air borders with Iran was another blow to Iran’s economy. The Turkish Chamber of Commerce also announced the closure of the border crossing with Iran and changed its Asian trade routes from Iran to Georgia.
Moreover, the dramatic drop in world oil prices and the cessation of various oil development projects in Iran are expected to have far-reaching implications for the Iranian economy and budget income. (Oil is Iran’s leading source of income.) Iran’s tourism industry – like the industry in other countries – is also likely to suffer a severe blow. Russia issued a travel warning and also announced that it would cease to grant visas to Iranian tourists.
Domestic tourism, especially in preparation for the Iranian New Year (March 21), also suffered a severe blow. In this context, Shi’ite pilgrimage tourism to Qom and Mashhad – an essential source of income in the face of U.S. sanctions – has been hit hard by the identification of the holy city of Qom as the epicenter for the spread of the coronavirus. The hotels in these cities are deserted.
It is still difficult to estimate precisely the impact of the coronavirus on the shrinking Iranian economy on top of the U.S. “sanctions” virus. Iran is in the midst of a “resistance economy” dictated by the Supreme Leader to respond to the U.S. sanctions. The regime seems likely to continue these policies and even try to blame the coronavirus and U.S. sanctions for its predicament rather than its own economic policies and exporting of the revolution, regardless of its consequences.
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