Analysis

As Iran's Coronavirus Death Toll Rises, There's One Thing Its Regime Can Be Grateful For

As some 23 Iranian lawmakers catch coronavirus, one of the faces behind the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis is the latest to die of COVID-19

A firefighter disinfects the shrine of Saint Saleh to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in northern Tehran, Iran, March 6, 2020.
Ebrahim Noroozi,AP

As the death toll from the novel coronavirus and number of those infected with the disease in Iran on the rise, the government has officially confirmed 237 deaths and additional 7,161 infected with COVID-19 so far. However, members of the Iranian opposition group Mujahideen-e-Khalq, who operate outside Iran, reported much higher numbers Saturday, claiming over 1,800 Iranian deaths from the virus, while tens of thousands have contracted it.

Already with the highest number of coronavirus cases in the Middle East, Iranian government officials have warned over the weekend that the number could spike to over 450,000, warning that many of the patients might die. Iran's worsening situation has isolated the country far beyond what the American sanctions against Tehran sought to achieve, as Iranian nationals are barred from entering Turkey and Gulf states, and are subject to harsh restrictions upon their entry to Iraq.

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Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the police, and the Iranian military have imposed a closure on the holy city of Qom, where the first cases of the virus in the republic began in January before spreading to the rest of the country, and where many prominent Shi’ite seminaries operate. All Qom residents who seek to leave must pass through checkpoints set up at all city entrances and undergo a medical examination in a sealed, military vehicle before they are permitted to leave. Shortly after the rapid spread in Qom, hospitals in the city were overflowing with patients, causing a shortage of beds, according to Iranian reports.

Several days ago the Iranian regime announced that it would establish 14 mobile hospitals that could absorb some 2,000 coronavirus patients. The government, however, added that it has encountered difficulties in recruiting the necessary staff to man these hospitals.

A member of Iraqi Border Guards is seen at the gate of Shalamcha Border Crossing, after Iraq shut a border crossing to travellers between Iraq and Iran, March 8, 2020.
ESSAM AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS

The government also has to confront clerics who claim that the virus is “biological terror” controlled by Iran’s enemies, and that worshipers should pray at mosques for the eradication of the scourge “which is intended to drive a wedge between the people of faith and God and isolate the country.” Many religious people have begun posting videos of themselves licking and kissing mosque decorations as a cure and a preventive measure against the disease, while authorities are warning against large gatherings, and schools and universities have already been shuttered.

Iran is also the country in which the largest number of government officials and members of political elite have been stricken by the virus. At least 23 Iranian lawmakers have caught the disease, and two have died. The Islamic Republic's deputy health minister, a senior adviser to the supreme leader Ali Khamenei, and President Hassan Rohani’s two advisers are among those who contracted the disease. In addition, Hossein Sheikholeslam, who served as former ambassador to Syria and advisor to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, as well as adviser to Khamenei on Middle Eastern affairs, died from the disease over the weekend.

The death of Sheikholeslam sparked particular interest as he was among those who planned and carried out the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover that led to the 444-day hostage crisis of American diplomats. At the time he was the familiar face of the student movement that seized the diplomatic compound and frequently appeared at press conferences to report on the condition of the 52 diplomats held in the embassy, conveying the students’ demands.

Alongside him was usually a young woman, Masuma Avtakar, who now serves as Rohani’s deputy for women’s and environmental affairs, but cannot come to her office because she is infected with coronavirus. Sheikholeslam, who before the revolution studied at the University of California Berkeley, stopped his studies to take part in the revolution and became the senior expert for successive Iranian governments on Middle Eastern affairs.

In the 1980s, together with four Iranian activists, including Freidon Wardi-njad, current head of Iran’s official news agency, Hossein Dehghan and Ahmed Wahidi, both former defense ministers, and Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, laid the groundwork for the establishment of Hezbollah. Sheikholeslam was then subsequently appointed Iran’s ambassador to Damascus, and from there oversaw Hezbollah’s activities. When he concluded six years of service in Damascus he returned to Iran and among other posts was put in charge of Iranian policy toward Arab countries, alongside the Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a bombing in early January by a U.S. attack. One may assume that Sheikholeslam’s name was erased over the weekend from the most-wanted list of many intelligence services.

The sparse reports coming from the Iranian government and the unsubstantiated information on social media show that Iran is having difficulty dealing with the spread of the virus, which has become a threatening political issue. Ordinary citizens and experts have accused the regime not only of concealing information and a shortage of beds and medications, but also of a failure to prevent the spread of the virus in the first days after the contagion became known.

According to a key claim, the government could have limited the extent of the damage, isolated the city of Qom earlier, and warned people against the virus in time. But the government feared that such a warning would impact the number of voters going to the polls and thus would damage the government’s image and political legitimacy, which relies on a high voter turnout. Another claim is directed against the decision to export more than a million face masks to China, which resulted in a shortage of masks locally, and now the lack of medicine is sparking controversy among ordinary citizens and doctors, who blame the shortage on the regime’s policy toward sanctions.

In the face of the government’s argument that the sanctions are the direct reason for the shortage, Iranian experts say that Iran’s policy of “standing strong” against sanctions is what could lead to a high number of deaths. It seems that the regime can now only thank the virus for preventing the masses from taking to the streets.