Reporting by PMOI/MEK
Iran, March 20, 2020—As Iran appears to be vying for the status of the country hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the regime continues to demonstrate that they are far less concerned with the wellbeing of people than they are with maintaining their hold on power. This was made explicit on March 14, when a regime think tank published an analysis in state media which urged increased militarism as a precaution against the public protests that will result from the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Of course, the article did not acknowledge such mishandling, but the regime’s incompetence in this matter is difficult to hide. That hasn’t stopped Iranian officials and state media outlets from trying. But over the past couple of weeks, they have been acknowledging ever-greater daily death tolls, bringing the current total to well over 1,000. And on Tuesday, officials floated the idea that “millions” of people could become infected.
That statement was apparently motivated by regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s announcement that important religious shrines would be closed to slow the spread of the disease. But this decision came at least a month after it had already become clear that pilgrimage sites were becoming major vectors of infection for the country and the entire region. The closures are now widely recognized as “too little, too late,” and the regime’s expressed opposition to closing them earlier may have turned the Iranian outbreak into a world-leading crisis.
The recent warning about millions of possible infections was clearly intended to be seen as a worst case scenario. But the Iranian opposition sees it as a clandestine acknowledgement of the reality that Iran is already facing. According to the latest information obtained by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), Iran’s coronavirus outbreak has so far claimed the lives of at least 7,000 people, more than any other country.
In a video conference hosted by MEK supporters, one doctor extrapolated from this death toll to conclude that the country had had as many as a million coronavirus cases. An article in TIME reported that same figure on Tuesday, quoting a doctor who currently works at one of Tehran’s largest hospitals. Since last month, various other medical professionals have also spoken to international media in order to explain that the actual numbers of infections were routinely orders of magnitude greater than what the regime was acknowledging.
These disclosures come at great personal risk, since the judiciary has warned that “rumor mongers” face punishment of up to three years in prison, plus flogging. Security forces impose tight restrictions on hospitals and control the communications of medical staff. Accordingly, many people have been arrested for speaking to the media or for simply sharing their personal experiences via social media. But this is as much a response to the general phenomenon of Iranians exchanging information freely as it is an attempt to crack down on particular information about coronavirus.
The March 14 analysis by the regime’s “Asra” think tank specifically lamented the fact that Iranian citizens had become increasingly reliant on social media and independent news outlets, while rejecting state media’s propaganda. But in calling for stepped-up societal repression, the article seemed to take it for granted that trust in state media cannot be restored.
In January, when it became clear that the regime had attempted to cover up its responsibility for the downing of a Ukraine International Airlines flight near Tehran, the public responded with outrage. Protests across 17 provinces led to activists tearing down images or regime leaders and to resume chanting anti-government slogans that had defined a nationwide uprising the previous November.
There is every reason to expect that this sort of outrage will recur once it becomes more broadly apparent that Tehran covered up thousands of coronavirus-related deaths for weeks on end. And just as the protests in November and January decried the regime for its obvious disinterest in the physical safety and economic security of its people, the public is sure to stage a fierce response to those government actions that made the present crisis so much more deadly than it might have been.
But in light of the “Asra” analysis and the measures actually taken by the regime afterward, it is clear that when Iranians next rise up against the government, they will be facing an ever greater challenge from repressive institutions like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Khamenei ordered the IRGC and other Iranian armed forces to take the lead in responding to the coronavirus epidemic. Ostensibly, their mission is to enforce social distancing protocols, but in practice this has begun a process of consolidating powers that had already-been ascendant for the IRGC and its allies.
Given his close association with the think tank that prepared last week’s analysis, Khamenei is surely responding to its warning that “dangerous rebellions” are very likely in the aftermath of the regime’s bungled response to a public health crisis. Neither analysts nor Iranian officials seem to have much confidence in the regime’s ability to improve upon that response. So instead, they focus on shoring up the paramilitary safeguards against that regime’s overthrow.
The consequences could be nearly as deadly as the epidemic itself. During the November uprising, the IRGC and other armed forces killed more than 1,500 protesters. But this did not stop them from returning to the streets two months later, and the heightened risk of government backlash is not likely to stop them from coming out in force once again after this epidemic is over, and renewing their explicit calls for regime change.