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How Iran’s regime is weaponizing COVID-19 against its citizens

Iran's regime is taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak to mount repression
Iran's regime is taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak to mount repression

Analysis by PMOI/MEK   

Iran, April 20, 2020—“The disaster will be a blessing, and the threat will be an opportunity,” Iranian regime supreme leader Ali Khamenei said in an April 9 speech, in which he discussed Iran’s coronavirus outbreak.

And to be fair, Khamenei has remained true to his word. His regime has used the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to consolidate his hold on power.

In all countries, people and governments have joined forces to fight the novel coronavirus as a common enemy. However, in Iran, the ruling regime continues to see the people as its main enemy. And in this regard, it has added to COVID-19 to its arsenal of weapons against the Iranian population, which previously included repression, poverty, inflation, corruption, and censorship among others.

This tragic truth has manifested itself in numerous ways since the beginning of Iran's coronavirus outbreak in January. By Sunday, more than 32,200 people had died of coronavirus infection in all 31 provinces of Iran. And there’s no sign of the spread of the virus slowing down as the regime continues to insist on its destructive policies.

An unwelcomed guest

COVID-19 knocked on Iran’s door in January, an inopportune time for the ruling mullahs. The regime was still reeling in the aftermath of the November 2019 protests, quelled by the security forces with brute force and the murder of more than 1,500 protesters. It was also still in the middle of a public relations crisis after its military shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane and subsequently lied about it.

The regime needed to lift its image, and it planned to do it through widely publicized pro-government rallies scheduled for February 11 and parliamentary elections on February 21. By engineering widespread participation in both events, the regime planned to create the impression that it enjoys wide support among the population.

Therefore, to avoid jeopardizing its PR campaign, the regime decided to keep the lid on the coronavirus outbreak at the expense of the people’s health. The regime officially acknowledged two COVID-19 deaths on February 19. But according to documents obtained by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) as well as remarks made by regime officials and healthcare workers, the signs of coronavirus were present since at least a month earlier.

By the time the regime reported the first cases, the virus had already spread across vast swaths of Iran, making it the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Middle East.

A new excuse for repression

Not one to lose an opportunity to level up its repressive apparatus, the Iranian regime quickly used the COVID-19 outbreak as an excuse to bestow more power to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Bassij, the paramilitary arm of the IRGC that played a pivotal role in the bloody crackdown on protests in November and January.

The regime declared a plan to dispatch 300,000 Basij members in the streets of Tehran under the pretext of fighting coronavirus. The presence of state-security forces was also increased, with anti-riot vehicles and units openly parading in the streets wearing coronavirus insignias.

Khamenei appointed IRGC Commander Mohammad Bagheri, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, at the forefront of the “fight” against coronavirus and tasked him with establishing a garrison for this purpose.

At the same time, the regime dispatched security forces to every hospital and clinic to control the flow of information and prevent information from leaking to the Iranian resistance and foreign media. In tandem, the regime’s censorship apparatus engaged in testing new technology to block access to the internet.

At face value, all efforts were ostensibly meant to help stop the spread of the virus. But in reality, this is exactly the kind of structure the regime wanted to set up to deal with the greater threat of nationwide uprisings.

In this regard, Khamenei’s reference to the coronavirus outbreak as an “opportunity” runs in parallel to remarks made by his predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini, who described the Iran-Iraq war as a “divine gift.” Just as Khomeini took advantage of the conflict to crack down on opposition and dissent, Khamenei is now using the coronavirus outbreak as a tool for censorship and repression.

Since the outbreak began, the regime’s security forces have been arresting people who are disclosing real information about the outbreak and exposing the regime’s lies about the scale of the disaster. It has also fired physicians and nurses who speak to the media about COVID-19 cases and deaths in breach of the regime’s protocol to remain tight-lipped about statistics.

At the same time, the regime has been using COVID-19 as a new weapon in prisons. The regime refrains from taking the necessary measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus in prisons, and has been especially harsh toward political prisoners, including 12,000 protesters arrested during the 2019 uprising. The regime’s lack of measures resulted in riots in at least eight prisons, to which the regime responded with an iron fist, killing dozens of inmates.

Why the regime won’t succeed in its repression

Khamenei and regime president Hassan Rouhani hope that the spread of coronavirus and their repressive measures will cause the people to lose heart for further protests. And therein lies their error. The Iranian people have an organized resistance movement that will not allow the regime to weaponize the coronavirus. As the regime has tried to spread dismay and despair across the society, Iranian resistance units and rebellious youth have been targeting regime icons and centers and spreading the word that the regime is the main enemy and disasters like the coronavirus will continue to recur in Iran as long as the mullahs are in power.

At the same time, PMOI/MEK network is gathering accurate information about the outbreak and publishing it on a daily basis, exposing the regime’s crimes and lies. What the regime thought of as an opportunity for repression is now backfiring at its leader. It is only a matter of time for Iran’s powder keg to explode again.