David Patrikarakos

The mullahs’ coronavirus gamble has backfired

The mullahs' coronavirus gamble has backfired
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When you’re desperate you do stupid things, and when you do stupid things, you often make what was once merely a desperate situation dire. It’s a lesson I thought Iran’s ruling clerical elite had internalised. Seemingly not. The Islamic Republic is a revolutionary state; it came about after Iranians overthrew the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, in 1979. The Shah fell because when he faced unrest he panicked; he sent the army into the streets to kill people. And the more he killed the angrier they became until eventually he had to flee.

Once, the Mullahs avoided this sort of stupidity. During the 2009 Green Revolution when the people rose up following the fraudulent re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the regime sent its paramilitary thugs, the Basij, in among the protestors to infiltrate the crowds and undermine the movement. It conducted strategic executions. It did not send tanks or troops into the street. It did not escalate. And so Khamenei’s Iran avoided becoming Mubarak’s Egypt or Assad’s Syria.

Coronavirus, though, has seemingly proven too much. Where once there was calculation and caution, a reluctance to move too quickly, policy is now characterised by repeated blundering and premature decision-making. 

From the beginning, the virus was a problem far beyond the merely medical. When it hit, Iran had already been suffering months of street protests, which began in November 2019 when the people, outraged at increases of up to 200 per cent on fuel prices, began to call for the overthrow of the government. Iran’s economy, now under sanctions once more because of its nuclear program, was in chaos. The protests spread to around 21 cities. The government moved in, killed protestors and then blocked the country’s internet for almost a week. The United States estimated that as many as 1500 protestors were killed. It was the worst anti-government unrest in Iran since the 1979 Revolution. The regime was doing stupid things.

And so it continued. First, it refused to take the virus seriously – failing even to shut down a shrine in the holy city of Qom, to which pilgrims flocked before returning to all corners of the country, now no longer merely vessels of piety, but of coronavirus, too. Eventually, belatedly, a lockdown was enforced. But it was too late. By late March, Iran had suffered 1,800 fatalities, the fourth highest number of Covid-19 deaths after China, Italy and Spain.

Still, the Islamic Republic itched to reopen. The longer the lockdown went on, the more the economy suffered; those in control knew that if the economic situation was dire enough to bring people onto the streets in late 2019, who knows what they might do if the cessation of all activities continued to strafe the economy long into 2020. In early May its rate of daily infections had dropped to below 1000 (from a high of 3,186 on 30 March) and it began to ease up. As early June hit it began to lift controls on shops, mosques, schools and offices. The border with Turkey also finally reopened opened for commercial traffic. The Mullahs had taken a gamble.

The results have not been good. According to the Guardian, last week there were 3,574 confirmed new infections in 24 hours – an increase of 440 on the previous day. The second wave is here. Things are so bad that Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, has had to warn his people publicly: 'If the rules are not obeyed the government would be forced to restore the quarantine situation again, disrupting normal life and inflicting serious damage on the entire national economy'.

What now faces the Islamic Republic is a choice likely to affect the stability of the regime, perhaps existentially. Does it press on with opening up the (already severely wounded) economy, hoping that infections will stop spiking, and that some form of even minor financial miracle can placate the people? Or does it take the sensible and some might say morally correct course of action and reimpose the lockdown, knowing that it might well collapse what remains of the nation’s economic health?

On Sunday, Iran reported 107 coronavirus fatalities over the last 24 hours. The total death count now stands at 8,837. Fewer decisions in the history of the Islamic Republic will have been as important. Fewer will have had more wide-reaching consequences. And it is of course the people who will suffer. Iranians must now hope their government will, finally, stop doing stupid things – at least for the moment.

Written byDavid Patrikarakos

David Patrikarakos is an an author and journalist. His latest book is War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century

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