Who now remembers how 2020 began in the Middle East and how we were afraid that the murder of Qasem Soleimani would trigger a large-scale escalation of violence? Today, the homeland of “The Shadow Commander” hits the headlines almost exclusively in the context of the pandemic. As of March 25th, COVID-19 has killed 2,077 people in Iran and continues killing. It did not, however, make this destruction alone.
An earlier version of this article was published on 23 March 2020 at the Polish site ”Strajk.eu”.
Every hour in Iran, 50 people get infected with coronavirus and every 10 minutes someone dies – this is the evaluation of the Ministry of Health; according to the World Health Organization, their calculations and statements could be underestimated. Researchers from the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran created, using a computer simulation, a set of scenarios of possible further developments. In the most optimistic, an infection would have reached its peak around March 25, and the number of fatalities would remain at around 12,000. In the worst one, the peak will occur at the end of May, with up to 3.5 million deaths. And it is the catastrophic version that is more likely. The more optimistic, according to specialists, depends on three factors: the introduction of strict quarantine wherever the risk of infection is high, citizens’ full compliance with the authorities’ recommendations, sufficient availability of medicines, protective gear, disinfectants and medical equipment. None of these conditions are met whatsoever.
In the earliest accounts from Iran, the first aspect was emphasized: The underestimation of the importance of social isolation, especially the refusal to cancel collective prayers in mosques. In fact, the Shi’ite holy city of Qom, with its Fatima Masumeh Shrine and other constantly opened temples, turned out to be an epicenter of the epidemic. As the Polish Iranologist Jagoda Grondecka vividly describes, in the sanctuary, upon the grave of the daughter of the seventh imam Musa al-Kadhim, “crowded, literally stepping on each other, the faithful squeeze through to touch for a moment – and preferably kiss – the bars separating the grave from common people. Women often wail and sob in a loud manner. According to the allegory, each tear shed is one pearl to receive at the gates of paradise.” The caretakers of the holy place initially rejected the possibility of closing the mosque, which would be, from their point of view, flagrant evidence of unbelief; more, they directly encouraged believers to come to the grave for healing. It wasn’t until March 16th that the Islamic Republic authorities managed to convince the clergy that there was no other way but to deny entry to the mosques and to suspend the solemn Friday prayers. The next day some believers, equally conservative and confused, tried to break through the closed gates of the Fatima Masumeh Shrine and another vital shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, but the imams wouldn’t let them pass. The matter became too serious: Among the victims of the deadly virus are high-ranking Shi’ite clergy and politicians, including members of parliament. Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar also got infected, so at some point there were rumors about the health of President Hasan Rouhani himself.
Rouhani is not sick and appears regularly in the mass media, trying as much to calm citizens as to save his own political position; before the pandemic became Iran’s main topic, his conservative opponents won parliamentary elections and were prepared for a final reconfiguration of the political scene under their leadership. They had every chance of success. After all, the reformist vision of opening up to the world and recovering the economy through the revival of trade was murdered by Donald Trump’s administration, and two waves of somewhat desperate protests caused by the worsening economic situation were suppressed. Among others, local trade union leaders were sent to prison. The president lost a big deal of credibility, and even now it is difficult to call him the leader of a government efficiently fighting a deadly threat. At the beginning of the epidemic, the Iranian health minister belittled the situation and made assurances that quarantines belonged to the distant past. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stuck to the conspiracy theories (backed by the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major general Hossein Salami) suggesting that the virus was an American biological weapon intentionally launched on China and Iran. Subsequent public appearances by the authorities do not calm the country, because they show the chaos of incompetence and behind-the-scenes competition rather than efficient crisis management.
The Supreme Leader first ordered the army to take command in the fight against the epidemic, while implementing the guidelines of the Ministry of Health, but then ordered the army to obey the government’s decisions. The Iranian chief of staff managed to declare that in 10 days time he would lead the country back to normalcy – immediately, “credible” reports about the imminent quarantine and curfew began circulating in Tehran. However, these claims were denied by President Rouhani, who declared that extraordinary steps could only be decreed by a special group he had formed. In addition, the mayor of Tehran, Piraz Hanachi, admitted that it was simply unattainable to introduce and enforce strict quarantine in the entire metropolis.
At the end of the day, Iranian media simply did not provide information on the number of deaths or infections in the biggest Iranian cities. When Masud Mardani, head of the Iranian Center for Research on Infectious Diseases, suggested that there could be as many as 2.5-3.5 million people infected in Tehran, a city of nearly 9 million, he had to publicly revoke his claims after a few days, allegedly due to methodological errors. Major Iranian official media were attacking regional rivals, at this time for giving false epidemic statistics, or kept broadcasting good news, such as a story about a 101-year-old patient who recovered from the disease. The result of all this information chaos is the public’s complete lack of confidence in the authorities and their decisions.
According to her own Twitter post, Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar has also recovered. One of the living symbols of the revolution (which the 40th anniversary of was celebrated in Tehran just a few months ago) won the fight against the virus. Ebtekar was among the students who in November 1979 burst into the American embassy and took staff hostage, determined to stop the empire from meddling in Iranian affairs. It was Ebtekar, educated in the United States, who transmitted English-language messages to the media from the embassy.
Today, Iranians are once again addressing Washington with appeals and accusations, claiming that it is thanks to the US that their country must get ready for a drastic scenario in the development of this epidemic. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calls for the removal of sanctions while the fight against illness and death continues, and does not care about political correctness: “…is maliciously tightening the US’s illegal sanctions with the aim of draining Iran’s resources needed in the fight against #COVID19—while our citizens are dying from it. The world can no longer be silent as US #EconomicTerrorism is supplanted by its #MedicalTerrorism.” In the next post he added: “They literally kill innocent people!”
Not an extremist, but a respected economist, Jeffrey Sachs, urged Washington to immediately repeal the sanctions imposed on Iran (and also on Venezuela and Cuba), because in the current situation they are nothing but a glaring violation of international law and cause of widespread suffering. “Sanctions are illegal and immoral in the face of an epidemic,”- he writes. “There is no doubt that Iran’s capacity to respond to the novel coronavirus has been hampered by the Trump administration’s economic sanctions, and the death toll is likely much higher than it would have been as a result.” – Mark Weisbrot, deputy director of the social-democratic think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research. An appeal by the head of Iranian diplomacy is officially supported by the UN, and according to The Guardian, and even the British government through their unofficial channels tried to convince the White House that the fight against the virus is a common matter, more important than sanctions which can be “loosened” for a while.
However, the Trump administration has its own plans for Iran: 12 more companies (from China, Taiwan, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates) were sanctioned for doing business with Iranian petrochemical companies in the last week. – The policy of maximum pressure on the regime is continuing – as Brian Hook, Special Representative for Iran, told journalists. Nothing has changed since December 2019, when the Department of State announced an even more severe action against the utterly hated Middle East country. At a press meeting on December 30th, a US official spoke with satisfaction about Iran’s recession and diplomatic isolation. If anyone had any unnecessary humanistic doubts, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump himself would dispel them at a press conference on March 20. “Iranian leaders know the answer to your question,” said the president to a journalist who raised the issue of possible withdrawal of sanctions. Shortly afterwards, Trump gave his “best wishes” to all Iranians for the Persian New Year, Nowruz. This is “unthinkable incitement” writes Simon Tisdall in The Guardian. Mehdi Hasan in The Intercept wonders if the American government is led by sociopaths, who managed to beat in ruthlessness even the administration of George W. Bush: After all, in 2003 it was this administration that agreed to temporarily limit sanctions and send medical help when an earthquake killed twenty-six thousand people in southeastern Iran. Now the US has theoretically offered humanitarian aid (no details have been disclosed) to Iran, without withdrawing sanctions.
Mike Pompeo has suggested at a conference that Iran is suffering at its own request, because sanctions do not include humanitarian aid or the purchase of medicines. As credible as his claim that Tehran is the only source of violence and the only aggressive state in the Middle East, the Human Rights Watch report from October 2019 proves that the truth is much more vicious: “…documents how broad restrictions on financial transactions, coupled with aggressive rhetoric from United States officials, have drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment. While the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, Human Rights Watch found that in practice these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods. The result has been to deny Iranians access to essential medicines and to impair their right to health.” In short: Banks prefer to block all transactions with Iranian subjects, and European drug manufacturers and medical equipment producers refrain from selling. They prefer to be overzealous and sure that they will stay untouched by sanctions, instead of wondering if in a particular case humanitarian criteria would be met. For similar reasons, Tehran claims, the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement, a mechanism launched at the end of February enabling the import of medicines and humanitarian goods to Iran has failed. Because of sanctions and banks’ unwillingness to cooperate, says Tehran, it is impossible to redirect the funds that Iran had deposited abroad to the channel.
In autumn 2019, human rights defenders warned that Iran, due to sanctions, is already lacking the essential medications for epilepsy, leukemia, chemotherapy preparations and specialized bandages, without which patients with epidermolysis bullosa (EB) simply cannot function. In a case described by HRW, a company from Europe refused to sell them because it was afraid of sanctions. Iran is currently lacking tests for coronavirus; some of its victims appear in the statistics as dead of breathing disorders and other diseases, because it was not even possible to examine them for the virus. At the beginning of March, masks and protective suits were running out, doctors were concerned about the availability of disinfectants and vitamin preparations that strengthen immunity. Before the epidemic, Iran was able to produce them on a certain scale, now it would have to import a large amount of both finished products and substrates necessary for the production of disinfectants. The whole operation has become extremely difficult under sanctions.
President Hasan Rouhani, struggling to preserve his position in the face of the conservatives’ offensive, appealed to American society to demand its leaders show a humanist attitude, but he rather does not believe this will be a success. Even before the president’s appeal, the Iranian government had turned to the International Monetary Fund for the first time in 60 years. A 5 billion USD loan would be provided as part of a special amount of support for fighting the pandemic in low-income countries. But likewise, the decisive vote belongs to Americans, whose representatives can veto any loan decision issued by the IMF. Even if he would not vote against it, there is still the question of the technical transfer of the loan: How to carry it out when no bank wants to expose itself to fines for transactions with the Iranian Central Bank?
Nowruz is a traditional opportunity to meet friends, have some proper holidays, and visit family. This year was no different: Warnings about the risks of not isolating were ignored. According to police data, 1.2 million cars hit the Iranian roads, and trips to the Caspian Sea were only slightly less popular than last year. And just at the end of the weekend, when spring began, Tehran province authorities announced that all companies in the capital city, except supermarkets and pharmacies, are to be closed by April 3. The Iranians did not give up the holiday, because the wealthiest already had the means to protect themselves and their loved ones, and the poor apparently decided that they had nothing to lose. Members of the working class who had not yet been hit by unemployment had to carry out their everyday duties. Private employers did not close businesses, knowing that a country strangled with sanctions would not introduce any “anti-crisis shield”, would not take on employees’ salaries, and would not suspend paying loans or bills. No one even undertakes to forecast openly what will happen to the economy because of the lack of economic activity in the capital, and also outside it in the long run.
The collapse of the Iranian economy, causing powerful social anger and ultimately sweeping away the government, is the dream of the American administration. There is an awareness of this fact and a desire to anticipate complete chaos in another tweet by the Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is extremely active in the media. In a message for Nowruz once again, bitter words were heard about Washington, and the politician made a surprisingly sober assessment of the system of which he is a part and the face of. “The fight against coronavirus has convinced us that we need to renew our governance,” he wrote. He suggested that there is a need to loosen control over everything and everyone, and instead create more NGOs and encourage citizens’ grassroot initiative. The latter is already happening: grassroot groups of volunteers were created in Qom to support the elderly and the poor, to take on the cleaning and disinfection of public spaces, and to promote rules of hygiene. Foreign media show such scenes of solidarity far less frequently than they focus on fanatics storming closed mosques or the semi-mad rants of the Supreme Leader. It is easier to maintain stereotypes about backwardness than to simply show Iranians, ordinary people who – once again over the past decades – are not giving up even in the most adverse conditions.
Photo: An Iranian landscape (photo: Pixabay, CC0)
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