More than 650 Iranians died from Covid-19 during a 24-hour period at the start of this week. Around the same time, large segments of the country entered into their latest government-imposed lockdown, but the mitigation measures are only scheduled to last six days, will be accompanied by zero financial support for a financially beleaguered population, and will most likely be only weakly enforced. That weakness appears all the more negligent when viewed in context with the regime’s recent willingness to open fire on crowds and conduct mass arrests in order to disrupt public demonstrations against various government policies and practices.
Iran is presently in the midst of its fifth wave of coronavirus infections. The peak of that wave may still be some weeks off, and it is conceivable that the brief lockdown will only exacerbate the problem by allowing new infections to incubate in isolation but not run their course before people once again flood into public places in a desperate effort to make a living while also burying and mourning their deceased loved ones.
Authorities previously made concerted efforts to blame US sanctions for the severity of the crisis, but over time it has become clear to even the most casual observers that the sanctions are not preventing the import of vaccines or other life-saving drugs. Quite to the contrary, American philanthropists attempted to donate tens of thousands of vaccine doses to Iran very soon after they became available, but it was the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who prevented the deal from being concluded when he announced that no American or British-made vaccines would be permitted for distribution to Iranians. As a direct consequence of this obstructionism, Iran has struggled to get beyond a vaccination rate of three percent. Furthermore, existing vaccination records skew heavily toward the wealth and the well-connected. Khamenei tasked corrupt entities affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to handle vaccine distribution. As a result, after being assured by the Health Ministry that vaccinations would be free, Iranians found that many of the available doses were making their way to the black market, where they appeared with prohibitive price tags of up to 1,350 dollars each.
Khamenei’s propaganda regarding the effects of US sanctions was further dismantled this month by an unlikely sources when the head of Tehran’s Covid-19 committee spoke to state media outlets and broke away from aspects of the official narrative. Dr. Alireza Zali said, among other things, that limitations on the import of foreign vaccines were neither imposed upon the Islamic Republic nor motivated by genuine concerns among the regime’s leadership, but were the result of cost-cutting measures.
Those measures reflect the same stinginess and self-serving priorities that prevented the regime from offering significant material support to the civilian population during the current lockdown or any of other brief and weakly-enforced lockdowns that occurred much earlier in the pandemic. Whereas apologists for the regime would no doubt be quick to blame that lack of support on US sanctions as well, this narrative falls apart as soon as one notices that Tehran’s funding of foreign proxies, ballistic missile development, and nuclear provocations has not diminished during the same period. In fact, the regime has not only proceeded without abatement to its repressive measures and force-projection; it has done so while maintaining a substantial cushion of reserve capital in the form of so-called religious foundations and regime-linked business entities. The National Council of Resistance of Iran has long emphasized that Iranian authorities have the means to help the people through a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, but lack only the will. Supreme Leader Khamenei and the IRGC are each reported to control hundreds of billions of dollars in assets, and some analyses even show that the IRGC’s activities, through front companies, account for the vast majority of Iran’s GDP.
Such hardline entities are far too preoccupied with preserving and expanding their own power to have any interest in spending significant quantities of those resources on the needs of the Iranian people. In fact, the regime’s supreme leader described the pandemic as a “blessing,” in order to deliberately prolonging the crisis in order to forestall public unrest that might lead to the ouster of the theocratic dictatorship.
In January 2018, Iran was rocked by a nationwide uprising that encompassed well over 100 cities and towns while bringing provocative slogans like “death to the dictator” into the mainstream. In November 2019, a similar uprising broke out spontaneously across nearly 200 localities and presented the regime with so great a challenge that authorities responded by opening fire on crowds and killing 1,500 people in a matter of days. Nonetheless, countless Iranians were back out in the streets of more than a dozen provinces the following January, and the pattern of uprisings only seemed to arrive at a pause after the first coronavirus outbreaks spiraled out of control.
While those outbreaks did apparently keep the unrest in check for a time, the effect seems to have diminished in recent months and especially after the June 18 “election” of notorious human rights abuser Ebrahim Raisi as the regime’s next president. In a recent statement on its official website, the NCRI suggested that in the wake of that election, Iranians have become keenly aware of the regime’s disregard for their rights and wellbeing. The statement went on to say that those people know, “the regime has caused and amplified the current Covid-19 crisis, and Khamenei has failed in controlling the restive society using the Covid-19 outbreak. What he once called a ‘blessing’ had become a nightmare for him and his regime.”