On the evening of Friday, November 20, news broke that Reza Malekzadeh, Iran’s deputy minister for health research, and Ali Nobakht Haghighi, the newly-appointed secretary of the Coronavirus Advisory Council, had both resigned. News of the abrupt departures quickly gave way to political infighting.
In an already febrile atmosphere following arguments over next year’s presidential election, various political factions in the Islamic Republic seized on the resignations as an excuse to dial up the rhetoric against one another. Media outlets linked to Iran’s security apparatus launched attacks on the two resigning officials. What was ignored in the midst of this commotion was the fact that close to 500 Iranians, according to the official figures, are dying from Covid-19 every day.
The chain of events that led to the resignations appears to have started two days ago. During a speech in Isfahan, health minister Saeed Namaki sharply attacked the ministry’s research department and declared that 98 percent of its output was “useless”.
The person in charge of this department, of course, was Reza Malekzadeh. The deputy has been in this role since the beginning of President Rouhani’s first term. In response to Namaki’s belittlement, he publicly announced his resignation and down and, addressing Namaki, wrote: “Whenever the number of infections and fatalities has risen, you have shirked responsibility, and whenever the numbers have dropped slightly, you have claimed you can teach the world how to manage the coronavirus crisis. And recently you launched the circus of the ‘made-in-Iran’ vaccine.”
Just a few hours later, Iranian media reported that the secretary of the Coronavirus Advisory Council. Ali Nobakht Haghighi, had also stepped down. In his letter of resignation, Haghighi wrote that the reason was also “statements by your excellency in Isfahan, lambasting medical science and doctors.”
Eleven months of ineptitude by the health ministry in fighting coronavirus is hardly news at this juncture. Medical experts have repeatedly excoriated their political counterparts for failing to contain the spread of the virus. An IranWire survey also recently showed that a large proportion of Iranian citizens are unhappy with the performance of government officials.
Nonetheless, one might have thought that at least some legislators might be concerned by such open criticism being voiced by an outgoing deputy health minister. The subsequent events, however, have only shown that the old disputes between Iran’s political factions are still very much alive and the 40-year-old maxim — “build a thick case file against your opponent” — still rules.
Media Reaction and an Invocation of the “Zionist World Health Organization”
Soon after the news of Malekzadeh’s resignation was reported, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ various social media platforms and numerous pro-regime Twitter accounts castigated Malekzadeh for his decision, and even called for his arrest. One well-known IRGC Telegram channel in particular spewed a torrent of attacks on Malekzadeh, and went so far as to accuse him of belonging to a group that cooperates with the “Zionist WHO organization” which, it claimed, had turned Iranian citizens into “laboratory mice” for drug-testing.
Elsewhere, Abdollah Ganji, editor-in-chief of the IRGC-affiliated newspaper Javan, compared Malekzadeh’s resignation to the resignation of Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 1980s over his differences with Ayatollah Khamenei.
Coronavirus Crisis Drowned Out by Political Backbiting
Following the resignation of the two health officials and the ramping-up of factional quarrels, a number of much older debates have come back up to the surface. Even in the midst of a public health emergency, it seems that in the Islamic Republic, old vendettas are never truly forgotten but merely re-emerge under a different guise. Over the past 24 hours, some of these have included:
Islamic Medicine vs. Modern Medicine: Until a few short years ago, so-called “Islamic medicine” was considered a marginal school of thought and not taken seriously. Even when, in January 2020, a clergyman named Abbas Tabrizian symbolically set fire to the famous “Principles of Internal Medicine” by Tinsley Randolph Harrison, it was mostly dismissed as an act of comedy. For many viewers in Iran, the TV appearances of a doctor by the name of Hossein Ravazadeh promoting Islamic medicine were a much-needed source of laughs.
But the proponents of “Islamic medicine” persisted, and over time gained the ear of a handful of decision-makers – and ultimately, that of the Office of the Supreme Leader. One of the group’s most effective ploys had been to replace the largely-discredited term “Islamic medicine” with the more orthodox “traditional medicine”.
Now in 2020, the group has enjoyed enough influence to open a “Center of Traditional Medicine to Fight Coronavirus” in Tehran. Two of the officials invited to its inauguration were Dr. Alireza Zali, director of the Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce, and Dr. Masoud Mardani, a member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s scientific committee – both of whom are vehemently opposed to the concept of “Islamic mecicine”. In his remarks at the ceremony, Dr. Zali excused his presence by saying he was following “policies set by the Supreme Leader.”
Notably, before his resignation, Reza Malekzadeh was considered the most staunch opponent of “traditional medicine” within the Ministry of Health.
Herd Immunity and Resistance to Quarantines: One of the numerous accusations leveled at Reza Malekzadeh is that he insisted on building “herd immunity” to fight coronavirus and had even succeeded in convincing President Rouhani of the wisdom of this plan.
In the early months after the outbreak in Iran, Malekzadeh mentioned herd immunity several times and even citied some statistics related to it. But he never explicitly supported the strategy.
In the summer of this year, in a meeting of the National Coronavirus Taskforce, Rouhani said according to a report that he had received from the health ministry’s research department, the same department that Malekzadeh managed, as of now 25 million Iranians have been infected with coronavirus and 30 to 35 million more are liable to get infected.
The veracity of these figures have been seriously questioned. For instance, the Iranian journalist Abbas Abdi pointed out that to arrive at such a figure, several times more coronavirus tests would have been needed than were actually carried out. To extricate Rouhani from any controversy, Alireza Moezzi, an official within the president’s office, tweeted that Rouhani had only been “quoting” a report by the Research Department.
Political Infighting: Iran’s presidential election takes place seven months from now. Ahead of this, practically everything has already become politicized, pushing the pandemic itself to the sidelines.
In recent months Saeed Namaki has done everything in his power to praise and flatter the Supreme Leader. It is thought that he has threatened Rouhani with resignation at least once. Malekzadeh’s resignation can thus be read as an event symbolizing the fight between supporters of the Supreme Leader and Rouhani’s administration.
For three years, during the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Malekzadeh served as health minister himself. He is understood to have strongly supported Rafsanjani’s policy of controlling population growth, a policy that Ayatollah Khamenei diametrically opposes.
Ali Nobakht Haghighi, the other official who has resigned, is the brother of Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, head of the Planning and Budget Organization. According to conservative media, he is also Rouhani’s personal physician.
The net result of all this factional intrigue, which has been going on ever since Namaki took over the health ministry, is that coronavirus is going unchecked and the number of its victims keeps rising every day. October 28 was the first day that the – official – number of coronavirus fatalities in Iran exceeded 400, and the trend has continued since. Now every day, close to 500 Iranians are dying from Covid-19, with health officials warning this could soon turn into a four-digit figure.