Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed this week that the coronavirus "knows no borders and does not distinguish between ethnicities or faiths." Technically, he is right. But the Iranian regime he is a part of is working to deny the extent of the virus's spread and its threat at the same time.
Iran's leadership is a mix of militarism, nationalism, anti-Western and messianic Shi'ite ideologies, all of which have played into its failure to confront the coronavirus threat and the way the regime has actually ended up spreading coronavirus even into its highest ranks.
Many Iranian leaders are well-educated. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a doctorate in civil engineering. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, received a PhD from Glasgow Caledonian University. Zarif studied at a private college/preparatory high school in San Francisco and received a BA from San Francisco State University. Iran's regime has the educational background, including from Western universities, to know how to confront a virus.
However, the mullah regime has done the opposite. It purposely has plunged the country into a crisis, and it now has the highest death toll from coronavirus outside of China – 26 at the time of this writing – and had more than 100 new cases on Thursday.
Iran now has the highest death toll from coronavirus outside of China.
The regime has mocked the virus, claiming that, like US sanctions, it looks worse than it is. It has characterized the virus as less deadly than the flu in the US and said it will not quarantine cities like Qom, where the outbreak grew in Iran. It refused to cancel flights from carriers like Mahan Air, which likely brought the virus from China in mid-February. The regime also has censored media from reporting on the virus and arrested dozens who dared to write about it on social media.
Oddly, Iran's regime also imported the virus into its highest ranks, as if it has an apocalyptic death wish. Maojtaba Zonnour, a Shi'ite cleric and conservative politician from Qom who is a member of parliament and a key national-security and foreign-policy figure, has the virus, according to Thursday reports.
In addition, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Haririji infamously appeared on Sunday television programs to downplay the virus, only to admit he had it as well. Another MP, Mahmoud Sadeghi, is also sick. Coronavirus is especially threatening to the elderly. For a regime that has no shortage of elderly members, why would it ignore the threat?
The reason Iran's regime did not do more, even to safeguard its own members, is because the virus spread in Qom, a holy city. It appears to have spread uniquely among Shi'ite religious circles close to the regime. It then moved via land and air to Shi'ite communities in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Kuwait. In contrast to Saudi Arabia, which has recognized the danger a virus can have among religious pilgrims who share housing and food in confined spaces, Iran's educated regime dismissed the growing problem.
Iran has accused the West of using media coverage of the virus against it. Its clerics have advocated nonscientific remedies, and it has not been transparent with neighboring countries about the extent of the crisis. Yet the regime did close schools and seems to have told military officers to stop shaking hands. This means that somewhere in the system in Tehran there are people who understand the virus is impacting the entire country.
All of Iran's neighbors have closed their borders with Iran, and most have severed air links.
All of Iran's neighbors have closed their borders with Iran. Most have severed air links, isolating Tehran. But this siege mentality of isolation is how the government appears to thrive. It wants to be isolated even as it seeks to expand its military power, influence and proxies in the Middle East. This is where the toxic combination of religious messianic revolutionary determinism and militarism all come together. Unlike some authoritarian societies that have immediately closed borders and endeavored to isolate virus-stricken cities, Iran views criticism of its mishandling as the threat.
This is in contrast to other disasters that have affected authoritarian regimes. The Soviet Union initially tried to cover up the Chernobyl disaster, but it also sent many heroic men to their deaths to prevent the catastrophe from becoming worse. Failures during the initial day following the disaster did not result in the system simply throwing up its hands and allowing the situation to get worse. In contrast, Iran's leaders have done just that: They decided that all available evidence about the virus problem can be ignored and all guidelines by other governments dismissed.
One would think a government that views itself as a revolutionary religious "resistance" against what it claims is US and Israeli "arrogance" and Saudi Arabia's "reactionary" system would seek to preserve its cadre of Shi'ite revolutionaries it works with across the region. It would want them healthy. But Iran has instead downplayed the spread of the virus and appeared to refuse to work with health officials in Iraq, Lebanon or Syria to discuss a joint plan against the threat.
Iran has appeared to refuse to work with health officials in Iraq, Lebanon or Syria.
This has resulted in Lebanon's pro-Iranian health minister claiming that there is no threat in Lebanon either. Iraq is more of a mixed approach. It has tried to reduce travel to Iran and to Najaf, where at least one person is sick. The Kurdistan region in Iraq has been exemplary in providing information to citizens and monitoring those who returned from Iran. Saudi Arabia, the reactionary regime in Iran's view, has sought to listen to scientists and health officials and work with its allies such as Jordan, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has said he supports the nurses and health officials confronting the virus. The weekly Friday sermons may be reduced, and sick people are being encouraged not to attend. There may be some messages in the sermons about the virus.
In this respect, Iran joins other countries in the region by potentially using the religious system in place to spread information. But if Tehran continues on its path of denial and conspiracy theories, instead of using opportunities the change course, it will likely make the situation worse and also harm its economy more.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.