Health

How the pandemic exposed the underlying chaos within the Iranian regime

By Behrouz Laregani

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Iranians walk past shuttered stores at the Tehran Bazaar in downtown Tehran, on August 16, at the start of renewed restrictions for five days to mitigate the spread of the covid pandemic. [Atta Kenare/AFP]

The Iranian regime's response to the coronavirus crisis has been marred by mistakes, miscalculations, misinformation and supreme leader Ali Khamenei's outright ban of Western vaccines.

In order to justify Khamenei's ban, issued in January, the government put out a steady stream of false information via propaganda news agencies, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) affiliated Tasnim News Agency.

Though Iran announced last month it was considering the purchase of two million doses of the US-German Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, many said this would be too late to lessen the toll of the Middle East's deadliest outbreak.

While the Iranian regime delayed, a two-pronged government disinformation campaign attempted to discredit Western vaccines on the one hand and to spread falsehoods about food and medications being under US sanctions on the other.

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Many reports say as of early October, the real number of COVID-19 fatalities in Iran is about three times the official statistics. [RFI Persian]

It even went so far as to call the United Nations' World Health Organisation (WHO) "an executive arm" of the US government.

"Many articles and reports have been published in outlets close to the IRGC in order to fabricate 'scientific grounds' for the leader's announcement of the ban on Western vaccines," said Tehran-based pharmacist Mojtaba Sadat-Ahmari.

Some of these "have falsely claimed that the free vaccines sent by Pfizer to Africa in recent years to fight smallpox, hepatitis and polio have 'contained HIV [human immunodeficiency virus]'," he said.

The regime continued to promote mistruths like this, even as the US State Department and Treasury have repeatedly and publicly stated that US sanctions on Iran did not apply to food and medicine.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Iranian regime maintained it did not trust Western vaccines, while simultaneously accusing the West of not allowing it to acquire vaccines, observers said.

At the same time, they said, the Iranian regime's response to the crisis has in many ways made it worse.

'No confidence in regime'

From the outset, Iran seriously underestimated "the viability and spreadability of the virus", Sadat-Ahmari said, which contributed to its mismanagement of the crisis that has so far cost some 300,000 Iranians their lives.

The regime failed to implement quarantines and continued to allow affiliated carrier Mahan Air to fly to China in January and February 2020, where the virus was rapidly spreading.

In the early days of the pandemic, former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani claimed the "issue would be resolved within a couple of weeks" and "things would return to normal".

Khamenei himself claimed the virus was "not a significant calamity".

By the time they realised the virus could not be easily contained, however, it was too late, and the public had already lost confidence in the authorities.

"One of the main factors was, and still is, the lack of co-ordination among the country's administrators," said Kerman-based political analyst Faramarz Irani, who noted that the public has no confidence in the regime.

"While the Majles (parliament) claimed that the Rouhani administration was in charge of managing the National Headquarters for Combatting COVID-19, Rouhani refused to accept the responsibility," he said.

Rouhani's refusal was "based on the grounds that military and security institutions do not answer to the office of the presidency, and are accountable only to the leader and the IRGC", Irani said.

This "is actually not far from the truth at all but also demonstrated how Rouhani shrugged off any responsibility", he said.

Unprecedented public distrust

The Ministry of Health has grossly under-reported the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths -- announcing 118,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, which many say is about one-third of the real number.

Majles representatives Gholam-Ali Jafarzadeh-Emenabadi, Ahmad Amirabadi-Farahani and Ali Najafi are among those who say the actual number of casualties caused by the pandemic in Iran is much higher than official figures.

IRGC-affiliated news website Javan went so far as to say the true toll is up to seven times the official statistics, which most sources find a considerable exaggeration.

Fueled by the coronavirus pandemic and the country's economic woes, public distrust of government officials has meanwhile reached an unprecedented level, to the extent that even state-run media have voiced their concern.

Some warn that this does not bode well for the current Iranian regime.

"Although it is not feasible to accurately estimate the impact of the pandemic on the establishment, statements made by some expat political figures suggest that COVID-19 may serve as a catalyst for the transition from the Islamic Republic," Irani said.

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