Iran’s coronavirus outbreak may be the worst in the world. The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) announced on Tuesday that over 28,200 people have so far lost their lives. Yet while other countries implemented ambitious and generally very effective social distancing measures, Iranians went back to work on Saturday after a very brief nationwide shutdown. Now hundreds of thousands of people could be at greatly increased risk of death or permanent health effects, all because the Iranian regime is desperate to maintain its hold on power.
Iran: Coronavirus Death Toll Exceeds 28,200 in 273 Cities
The People’s Mojahedin Organization of #Iran (PMOI / MEK) announced today that the #Coronavirus death toll had exceeded 28,200 in 273 cities across the country. #COVID19 https://t.co/md7ZkeF3QF
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) April 14, 2020
Threats to that power have been increasing year after year and month after month. Iranians from all walks of life took to the streets at the end of 2017 and the beginning to 2018 to protest the government and chant “death to the dictator” at a time when poverty and unemployment were running rampant across the country. Economic conditions have only gotten worse since then, and the public’s ire has remained focused on mismanagement and corruption within the regime, erupting into another nationwide uprising in November 2019.
In the interim, the entire year 2018 was described by the Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi as a “year full of uprisings” for the Iranian people. Scattered protests kept alive the message of regime change and democratic governance that had fully entered the mainstream with the first nationwide uprising. And it was this same message that was taken up on a national scale in November.
Chants of “death to the dictator” also characterized student protests in January that grew out of vigils for the victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iranian authorities attempted to cover up that incident at first, and the public backlash helped to underscore the depth of distrust that Iranians feel toward their regime and its state media.
That distrust was cited last month in a report by a think tank affiliate with the regime’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Asra. It noted that the traditional regime’s institutions could no longer be relied upon to control the public’s response to crises like the one that is still facing the country now. And with that in mind, Asra urged regime authorities to prepare for a new confrontation with the public by building up their repressive capabilities and doing their best to undermine independent sources of information, like the internet and social media.
Those recommendations have clear parallels in the actual moves that the regime has taken since the start of local coronavirus outbreaks. For one thing, Khamenei tasked the IRGC and the military with managing the response, effectively giving them greater power over all matters of Iranian society. That power has accordingly been exercised with new crackdowns on free expression, including that of doctors who are trying to warn about the true extent of the COVID-19 crisis.
According to the official regime’s records, somewhat more than 4,600 Iranians have died from the disease since mid-February. But according to documents and eyewitness testimony published by the National Council of Resistance of Iran and obtained by the MEK, the actual death toll is quickly closing in on 29,000. The NCRI also estimates that the total number of infections can now be measured in the millions.
This is consistent with the scenes being described by Iranian medical professionals – scenes of an overrun healthcare system with dozens of patients dying in a single hospital on a single day. And these are the conditions under which millions of Iranians were forced to resume ordinary life on Saturday. Their prior rejections of state media and regime authority suggest that few of those people are likely to take Iranian officials seriously when they say it is safe to go back to work. But many of them will do so anyway because they simply have no choice.
The sad fact is that the vast majority of the Iranian population was already financially destitute before coronavirus forced the closure of their country. But what is even sadder is the fact that the regime has little interest in alleviating those conditions. Mullahs’ regime has spent only about two-tenths of one percent of GDP on initiatives to support Iranians during the present crisis. And the supreme leader dragged his feet for weeks before releasing just one billion dollars out of the hundreds of billions that he directly controls.
At the same time, he and other officials explicitly rejected offers of foreign medical aid. In so doing, they effectively erased any doubt as to where the regime’s priorities lie. It doesn’t want to help people; it wants to control them. It wants this more than ever, now that the public has risen up against the regime at least twice in as many years. And the regime will allow large numbers of people to die to achieve that end.
Options for the regime are tightly limited. It could accept aid and release more funds to the public. But in doing so, it would be spending sums of money that are vital to its strategy for suppressing dissent. And with the warning of an imminent uprising by its official, the regime needs that money more than ever.
Alternatively, the regime could keep the people at home, away from coronavirus. But in absence of government support, it might only take days for unrest to resume within a population of hungry and destitute people. So, in order to slow the spread of that unrest, Iranian officials are forcing people to go out and support themselves, and to risk death in doing so. Because of the regime, a disease-ravaged population is better than one that challenges the theocratic system.