The Iranian government has covered up an outbreak of coronavirus that now threatens the Middle East and has led to border closures and hospitalizations in five countries. Over the weekend of February 21, president Hassan Rouhani and other Iranian officials downplayed the growing crises as Iran’s death toll from the virus climbed. It is now apparent that the regime, which has threatened the region with ballistic missiles, drones, naval mines, and militias over the last few years, has become a health threat as well, as it incubates a potential pandemic. The coronavirus has likely traveled from China to Iran’s city of Qom along the same route that pilgrims and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps uses to travel, illustrating the regime’s disregard for its own citizens and neighbors.
It all began with Iran’s wanting to show the world it had higher turnout at recent elections. Iranian member of parliament Mahmoud Sadeghi called on officials to take the coronavirus seriously during elections, and alleged that the government was hiding the outbreak of the contagious virus last week. Instead, Iran’s regime kept the extent of the spread of the virus under wraps, keeping it off the homepages of major local media. Turkish officials also warned last week that there were 750 coronavirus cases in Iran, and that it had spread from the religious city of Qom to other regions. Yet Iran’s deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi downplayed fears on Monday, claiming rumors of 50 deaths were false. Now Haririchi and Sadeghi are both sick, and Iran’s death toll is the second-worst for the virus, after China itself.
Iran’s failure to confront the health crises is not just due to the regime’s authoritarianism. China has fought the virus with authoritarian quarantining of Wuhan. Instead, it is the regime’s preexisting arrogance, conspiracy-minded behavior, and siege mentality that led to its discounting an emerging crisis and enabled Shi’ite pilgrims traveling to Qom from all over the world to continue praying together and traveling without checks, becoming incubators of the virus. People returning from Iran have spread the virus across the Gulf to Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman. They have returned to Najaf, a holy city in Iraq, where dozens are now under observation.
Iran couldn’t have chosen a worse time in the Middle East to do this. Countries such as Iraq are beset by protests and uncertainty, with Iraq specifically lacking a new government and threatened by ISIS resurgence. The Gulf already has one crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and is economically on edge due to serving as a transport hub linked to global trade amid all this. China’s coronavirus has spooked markets, and Iran is adding to the disaster.
The Iranian regime has mocked coronavirus as similar to the flu in recent comments. And it has weaponized the tragedy to use it against U.S. sanctions by claiming that, like the sanctions, it is overrated. Iran’s government is using the Iranian people as a human shield, and their alleged lack of suffering from the virus as a propaganda tool. Yet ultimately, the virus may be more of a threat to Rouhani’s government than he realizes. With officials sick, schools closed, and the military, police, and IRGC mobilized, the regime may find that propaganda won’t cure this crisis. Iran’s regime has survived using brutality, killing protesters last year, shooting down an airline this year, and blaming others for its problems while it seeks to attack Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. But Iran was unprepared for an epidemic, and its normal arsenal won’t save it.
Unfortunately for the Gulf, Iraq, and other countries, Iran’s incubation is a threat to the world now. Its airlines, such as Mahan Air, have likely spread the virus to Lebanon and brought it from China. Mahan Air and other Iranian IRGC-linked firms have transported arms and operatives throughout the region. It wouldn’t be a surprise if a similar route enabled the virus to spread unchecked. The regime’s toxic blend of religion, militancy, and authoritarianism have come together in the worst possible way at the worst time in a fragile region.