In modern theories of governing, the source of legitimacy is no longer authority in the sense of possessing power and the exercise of force. Today, government legitimacy is about accepting responsibility for the country’s people and whether citizens are satisfied with the political system and the manner of governance it fosters.
Six days after the coronavirus outbreak in Iran was announced, President Hassan Rouhani adopted an authoritarian tone when he addressed the nation, telling the people that the “enemies” wanted to shut down the country using coronavirus as an excuse, and that from Saturday, February 29, everything must return to normal. But while Rouhani was trying to portray a very unusual situation in Iran as normal, the number of coronavirus fatalities in the country was rising rapidly.
In response, Iran’s Students Union announced that the president’s order would endanger the lives of the students. In other words, a significant part of Iran’s student community called Rouhani’s decision a violation of his responsibility to protect the well-being and the lives of Iranian citizens.
A day after the public’s negative response to Rouhani’s pronouncements, his government changed course and announced that Iran was in a state of emergency and that the shutdown of certain sectors, including schools, would continue. In the third week of the outbreak, the Ministry of Health announced that the situation was even more critical than before and reported that coronavirus contagion had reached a new peak. This was not an understatement: the severity and spread of coronavirus in Iran have been horrendous. After the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, Qom became the second epicenter for the virus in the world.
Iranian citizens might not be well-versed in modern theories about the source of government legitimacy and its change from power to accountability, but their responses to the government’s decisions demonstrate how the regime has lost its power to arrive at rational decisions based on facts, and how its agencies are unable to make the correct decisions by themselves.
The Iranian government no longer commands any credibility with the public. The people do not even believe the official numbers the government has released about coronavirus fatalities. Instead, they choose to believe figures published by independent media. This is a sure sign that the government has increasingly lost its ability to tend to people’s problems and that it is continuously losing its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. Over the last 10 years, the regime’s legitimacy has been eroded for a range of reasons and the February 21st parliamentary elections damaged its legitimacy even more.
Legitimacy as Responsibility, not as Power and Force
The crisis of the coronavirus epidemic in Iran has also turned into a collection of government failures including, but not limited to, failure to prepare for the spread of the virus to Iran, failure to inform the public in good time when the first cases of infection were confirmed, failure to quarantine Qom when it became the epicenter of coronavirus in Iran, embracing the opportunity to allow passengers traveling from Turkey to China to change planes in Iran, continuing flights to China despite the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, failure to secure international assistance and failure to reassure the public.
The government has even failed to convince its own officials and affiliated individuals of its competence. A day after denying the extent of coronavirus infection while running a high fever and coughing nonstop, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi himself was diagnosed with the virus. The fact that a number of senior government officials, including Masoumeh Ebtekar, Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, were infected by the virus, show how seriously and dangerously government officials underestimated the dangers.
In his speeches and writings when he was Secretary General of the United Nations from 1997 until 2006, Kofi Annan wrote that in modern times governance equates to responsibility. If a government cannot perform its duties and the Security Council is unable to take action, he asked, can we allow the people to be destroyed?
After the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran the government of the United States offered to send Iran emergency aid to prevent the spread of the contagion, but Iranian officials disregarded and practically rejected the offer. Yet it is the responsibility of the Islamic Republic to ask for help from other countries and international organizations and accept humanitarian offers to help its own citizens, and to prevent the spread of the disease to other countries when it cannot contain the epidemic by itself. Offering help and accepting help in a medical crisis situation are minimum commitments countries must make under international health guidelines and laws.
The right to be healthy is a basic human right. It is the national duty and the international responsibility of the government of the Islamic Republic to take all actions necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic. Anything contrary to this is a violation of its responsibility toward Iranian citizens and destroys the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic’s regime. And, of course, the Islamic Republic can be held responsible for the spread of the epidemic beyond its borders as well.
Governments that fail to protect the lives of their citizens or do not accept responsibly for saving their lives and health lose legitimacy at both national and international levels — and undermine their own longevity as well.
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Athletes Condemn Government’s Decision to Hold Sports Competitions, 26 February 2020
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