The coronavirus outbreak has plunged the Islamic Republic’s decision-making system into unprecedented chaos and has distracted the government from the day-to-day affairs of the country.
President Hassan Rouhani reportedly wanted to appoint his First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri to head the National Headquarters to Contain and Fight Coronavirus (NHCFC) – but Jahangiri was infected with the virus before he could do it. And the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds the real power in the country and heads the “hidden government,” of Iran through organizations and entities under his command, is against Rouhani’s decision.
Khamenei directly interferes in all affairs of state and insists on showing off these interventions. But as of now, he has shown no sign that he is taking any specific actions to manage the current crisis. His only contribution was to send a video message, thanking doctors and nurses for their service and exhorting them to take safety measures seriously.
The NHCFC, supervised by President Rouhani, has complained that its decisions are not taken seriously and it is reported that the government wants to create a “Support Council for NHCFC”.
Religious institutions, especially in the holy city of Qom where the coronavirus epidemic in Iran started, believe that they are only accountable to Ayatollah Khamenei and have refused to shut down religious sites and shrines. For instance, the director of Jamkaran Mosque in Qom has promised that his mosque would receive visitors during Iran’s new year’s holidays that starts on March 20. This is one of Khamenei’s favorite mosques and there have been many reports about his hours-long visits there.
Quarantine Is “Outdated”
Qom’s local officials and influential religious figures prevented a city-wide quarantine, with the government saying that such a measure was “outdated” and belonged to the past. The result was the spread of coronavirus to the whole country. This mismanagement must be compared to the decision by Italy’s government to quarantine the whole country to fight this lethal epidemic.
The official statistics about coronavirus infections and fatalities were announced by the Ministry of Health but, on March 13, it was Abdulali Ali Asgari, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) who quoted the health minister as saying that the epidemic will reach its peak [Persian link] in late March and early April.
The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), which is supposed to toe the government line and publish official reports, has now strayed and is publishing reports from hospital sources that show the coronavirus mortality rate is much higher than official figures say.
A number of members of parliament (MP), especially from northern Iran and the shores of Caspian Sea, have criticized the government for not taking seriously the need to control traffic among cities. The MPs threatened that if things continue as they have, they would mobilize the people to stop the movement.
In a strange and unprecedented move, Mohsen Rezaee, the Secretary of Expediency Council, announced [Persian link] that bank borrowers do not have to settle their accounts until June 20. This council has no power to issue executive orders but its secretary has taken an action that will cost the government money. It remains to be seen what would be the consequences of such an unprecedented and unilateral order.
The public does not see much action from President Rouhani and he does not appear to have affairs of the state under his control. Less than a week after the coronavirus outbreak in Iran was officially announced, he said that things would go back to normal starting from Saturday, February 29 — a statement that undermined the remaining credibility of the government.
This chaos occurs at a time when parliament has been closed because an outbreak among MPs. Meetings of the Expediency Council, the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council have also been suspended. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, for the first time in 41 years the regime is absent from everyday life.
No Authority for the Public to Trust
The coronavirus epidemic has put the decrepit and dilapidated body of the Islamic Republic in full public view. In his desperation, government spokesman Ali Rabiei said that an authoritative mediator [Persian link] trusted by the public is needed so that, in such a crisis, the public will take seriously solutions offered by the government. It does not appear that they have found one.
A clear illustration of the lack of public trust in the government emerged three weeks into the epidemic. Rumors spread that gas stations were to be closed; and although the government denied the rumors, long lines formed at midnight at gas stations, out of widespread fear that people would not have another chance to refuel.
Over the years, the Islamic Republic has discredited and repressed voices of authority whom the public could trust and has rendered them ineffective on the national stage. Repeated exhortations to take decisions by the NHCFC seriously only show that, even in a time of crisis, government institutions are still rebuffing each other and tensions among them are increasing.
The NHCFC was approved by the Supreme National Security Council and decisions by this body must be approved by Ayatollah Khamenei before they can be executed. In other words, decisions by the Council show what powers that the Supreme Leader had delegated to it – but now the weakening of government institutions by Khamenei himself is manifesting itself in multiple ways.
The coronavirus crisis does not merely demonstrate the regime’s inability and irresponsibility in preventing the outbreak in Qom. More than anything else, the regime has tried to justify its failings by accusing the “enemy,” by denying unofficial figures of coronavirus infections and mortality and even by threatening and arresting [Persian link] people such as the staff of medical centers who publish accurate figures which show that the government is lying.
Another reality that has been laid bare is the unprecedented discrimination between government officials and ordinary citizens in terms of access to tests and treatment. Even among medical staff who have died of coronavirus, the cause of death had been identified as COVID-19 only after their deaths; but various officials of the Islamic Republic, even those without noticeable symptoms, have been treated as “first-class” citizens and have used scarce test kits to assure themselves that they are healthy.
The coronavirus crisis that, as of now, has claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent citizens will eventually subside. But this unprecedented chaos in managing the affairs of the country have exposed for a vast group of Iranians the broken-down and decrepit system of the Islamic Republic, a system that believes the cure for any crisis is to deny that it exists and then to intimidate and arrest those who dare to speak the truth.
IranWire reports on Coronavirus Outbreak in Iran
They Feared Coronavirus; Counterfeit Alcohol Killed Them, 13 March 2020
Families of Coronavirus Victims Forced to be Silent in Iran, 13 March 2020
How Did Iran Fight a Deadly Virus 100 years Ago?, 11 March 2020
Iranian Nurses Risk Their Lives Fighting Coronavirus, Wednesday, 4 March 2020
Coronavirus and the Legitimacy of the Regime, 3 March 2020