Iran has been mounting a full-court press in recent weeks over the need for sanctions relief. This global campaign has consisted of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lobbying allies around the world to publicly and privately press the US government to ease its economic pressure. Such an effort has deflected attention away from the regime’s own mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak – specifically, prioritizing conspiracy theories and ideology over science and the welfare of the Iranian people; creating a hydra-headed, dysfunctional management structure to combat the coronavirus; and haphazard decision-making.
The coronavirus is rapidly spreading among the general population of Iran. According to a Health Ministry official, one Iranian is killed every 10 minutes. It’s not just ordinary Iranians who are being afflicted with the disease – the heart of the Islamic Republic’s Establishment has also been affected. At least two extended family members of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have contracted the coronavirus – the brother-in-law of his influential son Mojtaba and the mother-in-law of another son, Meysam, also died from the disease. That’s not to mention that at least two members of the Office of Iran’s Supreme Leader have contracted the coronavirus – his foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati and his deputy for supervision and auditing Mohammad-Javad Iravani.
The Rouhani administration has fared no better. The first vice president, the vice president for family and women’s affairs, the minister of industry, the tourism minister, and a deputy health minister have all suffered from the outbreak. The situation has become so dire that President Rouhani announced around half of all government employees are staying at home or limiting their work activities. Such a dynamic is dangerous, as in recent days the head of US Central Command assessed that Iran is slower in its decision-making as a result of the coronavirus.
Prioritizing ideology over welfare
Despite all these trend lines, the regime has continued to prioritize conspiracy theories and ideological purity over tangible assistance. Just days ago, Iran’s supreme leader repeated the outlandish and outrageous claim that the United State is “accused of having created this virus.” Khamenei’s willingness to entertain these baseless claims has filtered down to the Islamic Republic’s top brass, with the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Hossein Salami, members of parliament, and the secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council Mohsen Rezaei employing this messaging. Rezaei recently accused the United States and Israel of using the coronavirus to launch World War III.
This is not mere rhetoric. Such dangerous thinking has had devastating effects for the Iranian people. On February 28, the US government made an offer to provide humanitarian assistance to Iran to help with the coronavirus pandemic. But the US State Department indicated that the approach was “quickly” and clearly rejected by the regime.
It’s not only the United States that has seen its efforts rebuffed. France’s Doctors Without Borders (MSF) shipped an inflatable hospital to be deployed in Isfahan, along with nine doctors and specialists. But an official from the Health Ministry later announced “Iran did not need hospitals established by foreigners.” In justifying the ban on MSF operating a hospital, Khamenei ally and editor of Kayhan Hossein Shariatmadari quipped “is it not true that France has always cooperated with the US conspiracies against Iran?” He also accused MSF’s presence in Iran as being “a cover for non-humanitarian activities.”
Iran’s officials have made similar decisions in the past. Ayatollah Khamenei and his allies routinely rail against Western infiltration. In 1992, the regime expelled all of the Red Cross’ staff matters after allegations they had assisted in the compilation of a United Nations report on the human rights situation in the country. There have been times when the regime has accepted US assistance, such as after the 2003 Bam earthquake. But in the current situation, the regime is prioritizing its revolutionary dogma over real-time, tangible assistance for the welfare of the Iranian people.
Chaos, confusion, and competition
Iran’s management structure of the coronavirus has also hobbled the response. There are three competing entities which have been established to confront the crisis – the National Coronavirus Headquarters, chaired by the Rouhani administration; the Imam Reza Headquarters, chaired by the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces; and the IRGC’s Shafa Headquarters. The New York Times also reported of a clash between Rouhani and Bagheri over command – with Bagheri insisting Khamenei gave him the authority “to act independently” of the president.
Such a collection of colliding entities has resulted in conflicting messages and erratic decision-making. When the supreme leader tasked the chief of staff of the Armed Forces General Staff Mohammad Bagheri to establish the Imam Reza Headquarters, Bagheri announced his forces would be “emptying shops, streets, and roads” within 24 hours. But a few days later during Nowruz, Iranian police announced that over 1.2 million traveled for the holiday. Only this week, after the initial traffic, did the Rouhani administration come around to forbidding travel.
There has also been internal confusion and dissent within the Rouhani administration over the handling of the pandemic. Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi indicated that it was his ministry which approved the arrival of MSF in Iran, only to see MSF later forbidden from erecting a mobile hospital. To add to the turmoil, the government’s spokesman later said Iran would accept assistance from MSF, with little clarity over next steps. Deputy Health Minister Reza Malekzadeh, himself a former health minister, recently admitted publicly that Iran did not restrict travel to and from China “in a timely manner” because of the “economic ties with China as well as the large number of Iranians in China.” He also regretted the “delay in informing the public” about coronavirus.
In recent days, Iran and its allies have been lobbying for sanctions relief given the public health emergency. But the rationale for this campaign raises serious questions, given the regime’s rejection of tangible offers of assistance, the existence of a Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement in which 50 companies have expressed interest in participating, and the government’s helter-skelter management of the crisis.
Jason Brodsky is currently the Policy Director of United Against Nuclear Iran.