Hui Wen Zheng

In late February, a video circulated online showing the Iranian deputy health minister in a news conference sweating profusely with what would later be confirmed as a case of COVID-19. It served as an early indicator of the country’s poor response to the virus, which has been marred by political factionalism and economic constraints. Tensions between the theocratic regime’s elected parliament and appointed religious leaders over economic trade-offs resulted in an uncoordinated initial response. By the time a too-little, too-late lockdown was imposed on 28 March, Iran had already cemented its position as the site of the worst outbreak in the Middle East.

Iran’s disordered management of COVID-19 is part of a greater picture of national turmoil in recent months, including massive civil protests triggered by a rise in fuel prices, the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, and the accidental downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752. These events also occurred against the backdrop of the United States’ renewed “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, which has thrown the Iranian economy into a deep recession. The political and economic pressures on a government trying to hold onto legitimacy has deeply shaped its COVID-19 response. With national parliamentary elections scheduled for 21 February, media outlets were told not to cover the outbreak in China for fear it would drive down voter turnout, thus supporting the regime’s many opponents. It was only two days before the election that government officials announced that two Iranians had contracted COVID-19 after travelling from Wuhan. Later on the same day, the travellers were confirmed as the country’s first deaths.

While the first fatalities caused by the virus served as a clear call to action in countries such as Canada and Ghana, the Iranian government swiftly enacted legislation to imprison those who spread “fake news” about the coronavirus. Despite this legal sanction, misinformation was widespread on social media. More than 700 Iranians died or became blind from methanol consumption, which was falsely purported to be a cure for COVID-19. The government also touted its own conspiracy theories, with prominent political figures, including President Hassan Rouhani, claiming that the pandemic is a US and Israeli plot to shut down the economy.

These narratives are indicative of the major misgivings that parliamentarians had toward imposing a lockdown. Many feared it would deepen the recession and questioned the country’s financial capacity to support affected citizens. Unconstrained by electoral politics, it was Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who took the first stringent action regarding COVID-19 on 3 March. He mobilized the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to begin a nation-wide testing, contact tracing, and public sanitation campaign. These measures were rife with propaganda, and army officials even touted a handheld device that they claimed could detect COVID-19 remotely.

The announcement from parliament for a two-week nationwide lockdown came two weeks later on 28 March, after an influx of travel during the Iranian New Year a week prior caused infection numbers to surge. Medical workers were overwhelmed by cases despite the country’s robust healthcare system. Nonetheless, full quarantine measures were put in place for only two weeks, as was promised by the parliament, and lifted without a significant decrease in cases.

Iran’s economic and political position also complicated international collaboration. Domestic measures such as banning personal protective equipment (PPE) exports, ramping up national PPE production, and developing diagnostic tests were in part motivated by US sanctions. Although humanitarian imports are exempt from sanctions, massive reluctance from European and American companies to incur risk from performing any transactions with Iran serves as a de facto embargo. However, Iran has also retaliated by rejecting US offers of humanitarian assistance—it cited espionage concerns as the reason to revoke permission for a Doctors Without Borders team to set up a COVID-19 field hospital.

Still, the strain COVID-19 has placed on the Iranian economy appears to have superseded the government’s animosity toward the West in some instances. For the first time since the 1979 revolution, the country requested an emergency loan of USD 5 billion from the International Monetary Fund, though the request is unlikely to be granted given US objection. President Rouhani also announced that 20 percent of the annual state budget would be set aside to combat COVID-19 with grants and low-interest loans to affected populations. To finance this, officials have had to request access to EUR 1 billion from their sovereign wealth fund.

Despite these measures, the Iranian government’s COVID-19 response has highlighted the folly of separating economic performance and political legitimacy from public health. The pandemic’s costs are first and foremost in human lives—it will be difficult for the country to bear the mass burials and accidental methanol poisonings. Iran is now definitively facing its second wave of infections as public life resumes. As of the first week of June, the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths had reached a record high. In another lamentable lesson of COVID-19, Iran is again exemplifying the dangers of reopening the economy before adequate measures to contain the virus are put into place.

Part of the COVID Comparative Project. View the complete series.