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Power Politics and Ideology: Khamenei’s Lethal Coronavirus Formula

December 8, 2020
14 min read
After the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran, Khamenei quarantined himself but did not ban religious ceremonies
After the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran, Khamenei quarantined himself but did not ban religious ceremonies
The failure to quarantine Qom after the outbreak of coronavirus led to an extremely fast spread of the virus to other Iranian cities and even to some other countries
The failure to quarantine Qom after the outbreak of coronavirus led to an extremely fast spread of the virus to other Iranian cities and even to some other countries
Khamenei intervenes and interferes in the smallest of executive affairs but never accepts responsibility for any of them
Khamenei intervenes and interferes in the smallest of executive affairs but never accepts responsibility for any of them

How each country has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic reflects on its government, and on where its priorities lie. In some societies, good management of Covid-19 has lent the state a level of popularity it did not enjoy before – whereas in others, such as Iran, the shortcomings of the political system have been laid bare for all to see.

The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic has always had a contradictory approach to executive affairs. He intervenes and interferes in everything from the most trifling executive affairs to the biggest issues of the day, but never accepts responsibility for any of them.

The pandemic was no exception. Khamenei’s response to the threat of coronavirus was delusional to begin with – he even accused the US of being responsible – but of course, he took it seriously in his own case, listening to the medical experts and no longer attending gatherings in person. This was just the tip of the iceberg.



Advocates of Velayat-e Faqih or “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist”, the founding principle of the Islamic Republic of Iran, argue that one of the advantages of this system that in a time of crisis the “guardian” can overrule normal religious duties: even the duty to pray.

The Covid-19 crisis, however, showed that this Supreme Leader not only lacks the courage to do so but cannot even stand up to the so-called “conventional” ayatollahs to ban activities that under Shia Islam are merely “recommended”, and not even considered “a duty”. Ayatollah Khamenei quarantined himself from the outset, but he did not ban religious ceremonies, and behaved exactly like the very clergymen that his own supporters consider to be out of touch with the modern world.

For the governing architecture of the Islamic Republic, religious ceremonies are not only about faith and tradition. They are also political events that buttress the regime. As such, from the very first day that coronavirus arrived in Iran, it posed a threat to the government. Worse, the first case of Covid-19 was registered in the holy city of Qom, the religious capital of the Islamic Republic and Shia Islam. The failure to quarantine Qom at the time led to an extremely rapid spread of the virus to other Iranian cities, and even to some other countries.

On February 22, immediately after Iranian officials had finally conceded that coronavirus had come to Iran, Mohammad Saeedi, Qom’s Friday Imam, accused Donald Trump of staging the epidemic in Qom.

“It is now clear that this evil, dirty and wicked man has targeted the holy city of Qom, the birthplace of the Islamic Revolution, a haven for the Shi’ites around the world and the center of seminaries and of great religious authorities...and wants to use coronavirus to strike a blow to the prestige of Qom,” he declared.

A month later, Khamenei gave his stamp of approval to the same conspiracy theory. “The Americans have been accused of creating this virus,” he said in a speech. “You can put no trust in Americans.”


No Quarantine for Religious Sites

The idea of quarantining Qom was raised from the very first after the coronavirus outbreak became known in Iran. But religious institutions were opposed to it, and Khamenei did not intervene until experts announced that it was too late and quarantining Qom could no longer stop the virus. Institutions under the control of the Supreme Leader also opposed closing down pilgrimage sites for several weeks.

On February 26, Mohammad Saeedi, who is also the guardian of Fatima Masoumeh Shrine in Qom, said he staunchly opposed the closing of the shrine. He added: "We see the shrine as a house of healing, which means people come here to heal their mental and physical ailments. This place must remain open and people must come here in force.”

While health experts were reporting that coronavirus was spreading to other cities, the health ministry’s proposal for putting restrictions on travel to and from Qom was completely ignored. On Arbor Day in March, Khamenei asked people not to ignore health guidelines and called safeguarding people’s health a “divine duty” – but went no further, in the face of furious resistance from religious figures.

“What is the necessity of closing down the shrine?” asked Ali Akbar Hosseininejad, Khamenei’s advisor in Qom. “People must take precautions themselves. Closing down the shrines sends a sad message. This is a haven for the people, and if people are just sitting in a corner of the shrine or the courtyard, nothing bad will happen. Pilgrims should not touch the zarih,” he concluded, referring to the ornate lattice structure that encloses the saint’s grave.

In a statement, the Guardianship of Fatima Masoumeh Shrine also ridiculed guidance issued by Qom’s Security Council to suspend Friday prayers and disinfect the site. “It is a measure that stems from a lack of accurate knowledge of Islamic civilization,” it declared, claiming that for centuries Shia scholars had implemented the necessary measures to protect holy shrines from contagious diseases.

Later on, when some restrictions were finally imposed, health minister Saeed Namaki said in an interview with Khamenei’s website that the resistance to implementing health protocols at religious cites was so extreme that it was only with the Supreme Leader’s support that the National Coronavirus Taskforce had finally been able to temporarily close the shrines.

Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, a writer and a scholar of religion, tells Iranwire that these policy clashes between the Supreme Leader and institutions under his control are rooted in the way that governance of the Islamic Republic is structured.

“From the very first,” he says, “the legal and actual structure of the Islamic Republic was, and still is, made up of various movements with divergent and often contradictory interests — even though they are all ‘insiders’ and ‘trustworthy’ — and Khamenei has had no choice but to be cautious and to do his best not to drive away those loyal to the regime, and to him personally.

“When it comes to coronavirus, and the deep divide between traditional, superstitious and anti-science worldview that is a major building block of the regime, and the more or less rational technocrats in the government and perhaps other places besides, Khamenei not only has no firm views of his own, but he has to stand in the middle and manage opposing views in way that would prevent outright confrontation. Of course, there is always a powerful extremist current within the Islamic Republic that occasionally acts willfully and of its own accord. But Khamenei, as the absolute ‘guardian’ of the regime, has himself given them the power to fire at will.”


Pressure to Open Religious Sites

On May 25, while many cities and provinces were still in a “red” state of alert and some businesses were still in lockdown, the National Coronavirus Taskforce ordered the reopening of the most-frequented religious sites: Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, Fatima Masoumeh Shrine and Jamkaran Mosque in Qom, Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz and Shah Abdol-Azim Shrine in Rey, south of Tehran.

“It turns out that the rumor of pressure on the government to reopen pilgrimage sites and to remove the ban on Friday prayers was not only true, but it worked, too,” reported the newspaper Shargh. And it was another two entities under the ultimate supervision of the Supreme Leader, to whit the Islamic Propaganda Organization and the newspaper Kayhan, that this time played a role in putting pressure on the government.

On May 1, the head of the Islamic Propaganda Organization had stated: “The faithful are complaining because after the reopening of businesses and entertainment centers, the mosques and shrines have remained closed.”

Kayhan, in one of its multiple attacks against the lockdown of religious centers, wrote: “People are asking, how is it that they are allowed to go to malls, parks and many other places, but holy places and mosques, which have played only a miniscule part in spreading coronavirus, remain closed even though they can be better controlled than many other places by observing health protocols.”

On April 24, Ahmad Alamolhoda, Mashhad’s Friday Imam, who had announced his personal opposition to the ban on Friday prayers from the very start, demanded the reopening of mosques and religious sites for ceremonies during the holy month of Ramadan that had just got under way.

Then on May 13, in just one instance of Ramadan ceremonies being held at Tehran’s Arg Mosque and surrounding streets, Mirza Mohammadi, head of the organizing committee, boasted that some 900 million tomans (close to US$220,000), had been spent on disinfecting the mosque: an amount that could have been spent on fighting coronavirus instead of spreading it further, or indeed on helping people whose livelihoods were being devastated by the pandemic.

Many analysts believe that religious leaders would not have been so defiant had the Supreme Leader not effectively given them the green light. On May 10, in a videoconference with the National Coronavirus Taskforce while he himself was in quarantine, Khamenei said: “Prayers and worship, especially during the month of Ramadan is a basic and essential necessity for the people...In a sense, it is more necessary than material needs.”


A “Brave Decision” to Spread the Virus

In the Islamic lunar calendar, the month of Muharram is an important occasion during which mass ceremonies are held by Shia Muslims to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the third Shia imam, in 680 AD. On August 21, just 10 days before Muharram formally began on September 1, president of Qom University of Medical Sciences reported that Qom was in the throes of a second surge of coronavirus and had been in a “red” state of alert since August 4. But simultaneously, the vice president of the Islamic Propaganda Organization boasted that the ceremonies would go ahead and called it a “brave decision”.

On August 18, in a letter to Health Minister Saeed Namaki, the Iranian Psychiatric Association asked for a ban on holding religious ceremonies during Muharram and warned that Iran was on the verge of a “great disaster”. But the health ministry had already reached an agreement with the organizers, and the ceremonies on the ninth and the tenth days of Muharram, the two most important mourning dates for the Shias, were held under the supervision of the Islamic Propaganda Organization. According to the news agency Fars, in only one instance 13,000 people participated in a ceremony held at Tehran’s Imam Ali Military Academy.

Mojtaba Sharifi, one of the organizers, said that holding these ceremonies aimed to “neutralize enemies’ sedition” and to prevent “the creation of a dichotomy between health and mourning”. The ceremonies took place even as Tehran and many other Iranian provinces were in a “red” state of alert.

Even President Rouhani spoke out against the concerns of the health ministry. In a public proclamation, he called concerns about the spread of coronavirus through Muharram events “rumors and nonsense” and said that they must be rejected. He may have been genuinely afraid of contradicting those religious authorities who had declared that the ceremonies must go ahead, and who included the powerful Grand Ayatollahs Hossein Vahid Khorasani, Naser Makarem Shirazi, Jafar Sobhani and Mohammad Ali Hosseini Alavi Gorgani.

Eshkevari notes that it was declared unity would be created through the ceremonies “in a splendid manner” – despite warnings about the spread of coronavirus, and probably with half an eye on the financial interests of the religious establishment.

“Throughout history,” he explains, “religion and religious sites, including temples and, in Iran, Shia shrines, have been lucrative sources of income that benefited not only religious leaders and preachers but, directly or indirectly, also various businesses and social groups. That is why the closing-down of Friday prayers or mosques did not stir up too much controversy, but the lockdown of pilgrimage sites was met with harsher opposition.”

By the same token, however, Muharram mourning ceremonies become more important because banning them, Eshkevari said, “endangers the vast financial interests of preachers and especially the influential Shia eulogists. Of course, this is not the fault of ordinary people and true believers, who are not aware of this and simply act according to their religious beliefs.”

Some time ago, the journalist Arash Hossein Nia estimated that money spent on ceremonies during two most important days in Muharram — Tasu’a, the 9th, and Ashura, the 10th — is approximately three trillion tomans, or close to $735 million.

Some other analysts concede the importance of Muharram ceremonies in financial terms but believe that their political and symbolic role is more significant. Mehdi Mahdavi Azad, for instance, emphasizes that Muharram has a prominent ideological place in the Islamic Republic. Supporters of the regime, he says, believe that Muharram plays an important role in its survival since these are the largest gatherings held today of those who remain devoted to the Islamic Republic. These people, he believes, are “spiritually recharged” by such public events. The government, Mahdavi Azad believes, is worried that the will would loosen the ties between the people and the clergy.


Why the Difference?

The holy day of Arbaeen is the 40th day after the anniversary of Imam Hossein’s martyrdom, and this year fell on October 7. On this occasion, however, the response of the Supreme Leader and of his circle was different to that of Muharram. “On the day of Arbaeen,” Khamenei advised the people, “stay at home, recite Arbaeen prayers and tell Imam Hossein the you wanted to go but could not.”

There was good reason for this. Unlike the Muharram ceremonies, especially Ashura, Arbaeen is not taken very seriously in Iran and, in recent years, ardent believers have held processions to Iraq instead, where Imam Hossein is buried. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year Iraq had closed it borders with Iran and did not allow the pilgrims in.

Nevertheless, the Astan Quds Razavi, the guardianship of Imam Reza Shrine’s endowments in Mashhad, announced that “the first priority of Astan Quds Razavi is the Sublime Shrine [of Imam Reza], the pilgrims and the pilgrimage. Therefore, we are ready to implement health protocols at any price to prepare the ground for receiving the pilgrims.” An official of Central Arbaeen Ceremonies Taskforce also confirmed that all shrines across the country would implement health protocols and be prepared to host “Koran recitations, ritual plays, street theater and the performance of hymns by groups during this time.”


Khamenei’s Fatwa for the Burial of Coronavirus Victims

Interference by Khamenei and the powerful bodies under his command has not been limited to religious ceremonies. Burial rites in Islam call for bathing and shrouding the body and reciting a prayer over the deceased before burial. In the early weeks after the coronavirus outbreak in Iran it was announced that, for obvious health reasons, victims of Covid-19 must not be washed but buried with tayammum: a ritual cleansing using a purified sand or dust.

Khamenei, however, was not satisfied with this. He issued a fatwa stating that a death from Covid-19 did not mean “obligatory” rulings on treatment of the dead could be ignored and, regardless of the cost, the minimum requirements of ablution, shrouding, prayers and funerals — must be observed. In a remote speech to the National Coronavirus Taskforce, he also praised the paramilitary Basij and seminary students for meeting the “difficult and dangerous” task of ensuring that the Covid-19 dead would be buried with full Islamic rites.

The resistance of some clergymen to recommendations by health experts, and the renewed discussion about “Islamic medicine”, have once again brought the question of religious beliefs versus science to the fore. In some cases, people even used violence to force their way into closed-down shrines.

Even Eshkevari is not quite sure why the Supreme Leader chose to prioritize Islamic burial rites over health protocols. “I do not know the jurisprudential view of Khamenei in this regard,” he said, “but my guess is that he was pressured by religious groups, especially by traditional religious authorities and the clergy. Remember that Mr. Khamenei officially opposed tatbir [ritual self-mutilation during the mourning for Imam Hossein] and said it was forbidden, but we have witnessed that every year a number of traditionalist believers perform this ritual with ever more vigor, sometimes even in secret.

“In any case, such contradictions are both the result of built-in contradictions in the actual and legal structure of the regime, and a consequence of the weakness of the leadership both in matters both great and small.”


Also in this series:

Khamenei and the US: No Audacity for Peace, No Courage for War

Khamenei Buys into China’s “New Silk Road” Plan

Khamenei’s Systematic Terrorism Abroad

How Big Is Khamenei’s Economic Empire?

Nuclear Confrontation, Khamenei’s Gift to Iran

The Overnight Ayatollah: Khamenei's Fight to Become a Spiritual Leader

Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei: An Ayatollah and his Acolyte

How Did Khamenei Become Supreme Leader?



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