According to reports, the source of the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran were Chinese students at seminaries in Qom, a Shia holy city, and a merchant from Qom who had travelled to China. From the very beginning, independent Iranian media based overseas (such as Iran International TV, Manoto TV etc) discussed the issue and reported on new cases in the country. On the other hand, Iranian officials rejected the reports. For example, Iran’s Deputy Minister of Health, Iraj Harirchi, strongly assured that the country was not hit by the virus but the very next day, he confirmed that he had tested positive for the virus. Iran’s reaction was characterised by denial and concealment of facts rather than informing the country and offering rational advice to mitigate the negative effects of the disaster. This begs the questions as to why Tehran denied and then downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect in Iran, and what its consequences might be.
One factor pertains to the nature of Iran-China relations. Due to the anti-Western nature of the Islamic Republic, its regional policies, missile and nuclear programs, international conduct, relations with neighbours and Sunni Arab states, as well as sanctions—which prevent Iran’s historical friends such as India, South Korea, Turkey etc from expanding relations with Tehran—the country has been deprived of its natural allies and has been subjected to international isolation. This situation has pushed the country to develop imbalanced relations with China and Russia—two permanent members of the UN Security Council. Over the years, Tehran has tried to depict a positive picture of China and Russia while demonising the West. Another factor is the political structure of the Islamic Republic. It is dominated by the clergy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers and is based on religious legitimacy. This resulted in the centre of the power following a ‘religious-security’ approach towards countering the pandemic.
The first impact is on Iran’s foreign policy. When the pandemic was at its peak in China, Tehran sent aid to Beijing even though the price of face masks was skyrocketing across Iran. The cargo was transferred by Iran’s Mahan Airlines. Despite flight bans, the airline continued its flights to some Chinese cities, connecting Tehran to some Middle Eastern cities and spreading the virus to the countries in the region.
A diplomatic squabble also broke out between the Spokesperson of Iran’s Ministry of Health and Medical Education, Kianoush Jahanpour, and China’s Ambassador in Tehran, Chang Hua, when Jahanpour called China’s coronavirus figures “a bitter joke.” Curiously, both hardliners and moderates in Iran criticised Jahanpour for his tweet and consoled the Chinese ambassador. The Spokesperson of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abbas Mousavi, tweeted that ”Iran has always been thankful to China in these trying times.” This sensitivity displayed towards Beijing and rejecting assistance from other international actors can be interpreted as Tehran’s straying away from its original slogan—‘No East, No West, Islamic Republic’.
The pandemic also has a bearing on the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic on the domestic level. This crisis is completely different from what the country has experienced so far. COVID-19 is undeniable, invisible and cannot be arrested—tactics Tehran has used to counter critics and opponents since 1979. Ayatollah Khamenei said the pandemic was the enemy’s plot to discourage the people from participating in the parliamentary election; President Hassan Rouhani referred to it as the enemy’s political propaganda; and Tehran rejected international help, arguing that it was a way to collect the information. The clergy strongly resisted the closure of religious places as well as quarantining of Qom city which was the epicentre of COVID 19 in Iran. Some religious figures questioned modern medical science and instead recommended “Islamic medication.”
The COVID-19 experience in Iran could be compared to the Black Death experience in Europe where it changed the balance of power against the church. Both events altered the worldview of the people and had an impact on the economy. In Iran, people largely understand that shrines and prayers cannot protect them against diseases—i.e. the opposite of what the clergy has been saying for 41 years. Ayatollah Khamenei has not had face-to-face meeting for over two months, only appearing via teleconferencing, and requested to open the holy places. The COVID-19 pandemic, along with its economic impact, holds the potential to have an undiminishable influence over the Iranian society and the regime. The legitimacy of the Islamic Republic (the state) depends on religion and that is one of the main reasons why there was considerable procrastination in quarantining Qom. If Qom had been quarantined on time, thousands of lives and the economy would have been saved. Thus, the pandemic experience not only demonstrated the Islamic Republic’s inability to protect its citizens at a crucial time but also brought to fore its heavy dependence on China.
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