Three things are clear about the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran. First, its scale is far greater than in many other countries – officially, it has the sixth highest death toll, after the US, Italy, Spain, France and the UK. Second, the true extent of the devastation is unknown – sources within the country claim that the situation is much worse than the government is letting on. Third, it has dampened overt resistance to the regime, but this is likely to be temporary.
The Iranian regime, confronted last year by the biggest mass protests since the revolution of 1979, responded to the virus with a mixture of obfuscation and cover-ups. After regime officials contracted the virus and the death of a senior adviser to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, the government took belated action. It was, however, nothing like what is needed to arrest the suffering and death now disproportionately ravaging the poor, the working class and ethnic minorities.
The virus emerged in February, in the holy city of Qom – the global centre of Shia scholarship, which attracts more than 20 million Muslims pilgrims each year. Situated 150 kilometres north of the capital, Tehran, Qom became a transmission site, spreading the coronavirus across the country. By early March, satellite images provided by a US space technology company appeared to show mass graves being dug at a cemetery in the city. Footage of body bags strewn across the floor of a local hospital was widely circulated. The hospital worker who filmed it was arrested.
There are widespread reports that, after the first cases appeared in Qom, the regime covered up the virus’s rapid spread and failed to implement quarantining. “The regime response was weak and exacerbated the health crisis”, Hussein, a student from the south of Iran, says via email. “As the outbreak of the virus coincided with the anniversary of the 1979 revolution celebration and the presidential election, the regime did not reveal to its own people that the coronavirus had already appeared.”
The neoliberal period has inflicted a heavy toll on the working class and the poor while regime elites have amassed untold fortunes. World health experts report that the number of cases and deaths in Iran could as many as five times higher than the official figures. People inside the country say it could be even worse than that. “Everyone you know, knows someone who has it”, Hossam, another student from the south of Iran, says via telephone. “Everyone knows someone who has died.” State-led privatisation under both moderates and hardliners has ravaged public health and social services. And austerity and attacks on wages and workers’ rights have deeply impoverished large sections of the population.
The regime’s standing was not helped by attempts to downplay the pandemic. This year’s parliamentary elections had the lowest turnout since the founding of the Islamic Republic. In Tehran, only 25 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in February as, unbeknownst to many, the virus was spreading throughout the country. Voter turnout overall was about 42 percent, down from 62 percent in 2016. The drop was due to the same factors that drove mass protests, and the growing militancy of workers and students, in recent years – a broadening and deepening resistance to the country’s political and economic crisis.
The parliament is increasingly recognised as a farce. Unelected military and security bodies such as the Supreme National Security Council and religious bodies such as the Guardian Council wield unchecked power over policy and lawmaking and vet electoral candidates. This year, the Guardian Council disqualified half of all the reformist candidates – moderates who compete with hardline conservatives for control. It stacked the parliament with hardliners beholden to the military and security apparatus, which controls most of the country’s economy.
“In the last two to three years we have a lot of reports about people looking for food in rubbish bins or living in empty graves”, says Reza Akbari, an Iranian socialist living in Australia. Compounding the problems are devastating US economic sanctions, which have contributed to an acute shortage of life-saving medicines and medical equipment such as ventilators, face masks and hand sanitiser. A state television journalist, Dr Afruz Eslami, issued a terrifying warning to Iranians less than a month ago on state TV. Citing a study by Tehran’s prestigious Sharif University, she announced that in the worst case scenario, the country faces several million deaths. The study estimated that the best case scenario – with social distancing and quarantine measures strictly observed – will be 12,000 deaths.
“The situation of the health crisis is bleak and has become worse with the spread of the coronavirus”, Hussein says. “Most of the hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients and many more lining up for their turns to be treated. There are reports talking about people who died in their houses just because they were not able to make it to hospital or did not have enough money to visit private clinics. And the private hospitals themselves are full of patients.”
US rhetoric about medical supplies and food items being exempt from sanctions is a twisted lie. There are many ways in which vital medicines, supplies and equipment cannot be purchased, including that state and private medical entities cannot secure credit to do so. In January, the US announced additional measures against Iran after president Trump issued an executive order authorising action against “any individual owning, operating, trading with or assisting sectors of the Iranian economy, including construction, manufacturing, textiles and mining”.
The sanctions reimposed by Trump in 2018 – after they were lifted three years earlier by the Obama administration (the so-called Iran nuclear deal) – were part of a US attempt to maintain imperial dominance in the face of a rising China and the growing regional power of Iran in the Middle East. They have taken large quantities of Iranian oil off world markets and inflicted great suffering on Iranian workers, who well understand the threat of US imperialism. The sanctions have not, however, diverted rage and anger away from their own ruling elite.
“The government always uses the excuse of sanctions to justify its incompetence”, Reza Akbari says. “The main problem is distribution of wealth in the community, not lack of wealth. In the current situation, a vast majority are unable to have three meals per day. While the government attributes it to the sanctions, a minority, mainly related to the government and ruling class, are living in palaces.”
The regime’s expansionist project in the Middle East has also funnelled the country’s resources into military campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. It has also financed Hezbollah, its regional ally and proxy military in Lebanon. “The sanctions imposed by the US are so bad and detrimental”, says Hussein. “But there is one side that should be blamed for the current miserable life of the Iranians and this side is the Iranian regime ... Instead of spending on the health system, the regime squandered billions on its regional proxy wars and its militias in the neighbouring countries.”
There is an unfinished fight between a regime committed to waging a nationalist war for regional expansion and the people at whose expense this project is pursued – the working class and oppressed of Iran. Protesters have burned down banks and police stations and held running battles with police and security forces. Students have shut down universities, women have protested against sexist laws, posters of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been burned in the street, and there have been an increasing number of workers’ strikes.
The regime murdered hundreds and imprisoned thousands in the November uprising. When it released 85,000 prisoners as the pandemic spread in March, it excluded political prisoners. That provoked riots and breakouts. “There have been uprisings in 10 prisons. They attempted to escape. In some they successfully ran away but in some, police intervened and killed the prisoners”, Reza Akbari says. While the pandemic crisis has stalled a growing and radicalising social movement, not unlike the stalled revolutionary processes in countries across the Middle East including Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan, the fight is nowhere near ended. As Hussein says:
“While there are no signs to indicate that the movement will soon resume its activities against the regime, the past protests have proved that Iranians have been against the regime for political, economic, environmental and cultural reasons. As long as these issues have not been resolved, Iranians will continue to protest against the regime.”
As the global economic crisis triggered by the pandemic worsens, inter-imperialist tensions between the US, China and regional powers in the Middle East will intensify. In January, the US assassinated Iran’s most powerful military commander, Qasem Soleimani, in a drone strike in Iraq. Tensions will continue to flare over who controls key global shipping channels such as the Strait of Hormuz – the only sea passage to the Persian Gulf, through which 25 percent of global oil passes – or who controls the government of Iraq. Indeed, they may intensify if there is a deep and protracted global economic crisis.
With war on the list of options the US and Iran will consider as the global crisis unravels, hope lies with the revival of the unfinished movements of workers and the oppressed across the Middle East against US imperialism and all of the regional powers. While the COVID-19 crisis has interrupted the fight in Iran, the escalating death toll could add another dimension of anger to an already aggrieved population.