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Brigadier General Qassam Soleimani

Brigadier General Qassam Soleimani

IRGC – Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

IRGC – Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

Mahan Air

Mahan Air

As the coronavirus spreads throughout Iran, a quiet revolution is simmering, unnoticed in the US media.

The Iranian regime’s mishandling of COVID-19 – downplaying it while the government hoarded tests, doing nothing to alleviate the dire medical and economic situation – is the final straw after the massacre of 1,500 protesters in November 2019, and the January shooting of a civilian plane killing 176 people and subsequent cover up. The recent friendly fire mishap in the Gulf of Oman, killing nineteen Iranian sailors, only aggravates the already bad situation.

The regime has united Iranians across social and economic lines in their opposition. In November 2019, the protesters shot in the streets mostly came from the marginalized communities of the urban poor, often forced by water shortages to leave their rural livelihoods.

In January 2020, the streets were filled with enraged Iranians from the middle and upper classes, whose family members and friends were killed when an Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) shot down a passenger jet. Now COVID-19 is afflicting Iranians of all classes across the country, and regime leaders are missing in action, except for persistently lying about the number of dead.

The epic mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has set the stage for more anger among the Iranian public.

A mishandled pandemic

Twin political and religious decisions contributed to the early spread of the coronavirus.

First, despite their knowledge of the COVID-19 outbreak, the regime made a cynical political move by insisting on holding Parliamentary elections and the public celebrations for the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution before making any public announcements about social distancing. These decisions to hold public events came despite the fact Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, the former Minister of Health, said he warned President Rouhani about the pandemic in December.

After the government’s duplicity was known, public outrage exploded on social media, and the current Minister of Health Saeid Namaki revealed that his own objections to this policy had been suppressed. Days before the election Namaki was told that “It’s not right to talk about the coronavirus outbreak before the elections.”

Second, some religious leaders ignored health warnings and kept mosques and other sites open. In the religious city of Qom the decision was made, after cases had been detected, to keep the Fatimah Masumeh shrine open. Mohammad Saeedi, the Supreme Leader’s representative in Qom, accused President Trump and the US of trying to shut the city down.

“No one allows the enemy to portray Qom as an unsafe city; defeating Qom is the dream of treacherous Trump and his domestic mercenaries, but this dream will not be realized even in their grave,” Saeedi said. After all, he reasoned, sick people should come to the shrine, a place of healing.

That argument is hard to beat for black humor, but Iran’s famous wit has been working overtime in the age of coronavirus. No one is sacred or spared, least of all clerics. When a cleric maintained that applying “violet leaf oil” to the anus could cure coronavirus, Iranians made hundreds of jokes, sharing them on social media.

Mehdi Sabili, the director of an institute that promotes Islamic medicine recommended drinking camel’s urine, modelling this behavior in a video that went viral, provoking satire and jokes. This evidently embarrassed the regime. After arresting and interrogating Sabili, the police discredited the “charlatan”, saying that he had no expertise in any kind of medicine – Islamic or otherwise.

As respect for and confidence in the regime diminish, undermined by its ineptitude and mismanagement, acts of resistance increase. Women have been seen flouting the strict dress code. As a sign of national unity Iranians are singing “Ey Iran”, an anthem beloved by the Iranian people, and disliked by the regime.

Iranians have been taking steps within their own communities to fill the gap left by their leaders, ensuring that hospitals have adequate supplies and hospital workers are fed. There have been reports of philanthropists, artists, and NGOs providing hospitals and medical staff with masks, gowns, and food. On their own, some factories have converted to producing medical supplies.

Pushback from within the government

The trifecta of misdeeds — mishandling the protests, shooting down the plane, and misleading the public about the virus — by the Iranian regime over the past six months has provoked criticism from members and supporters of the government as well as its opponents.

A report from the country’s Parliament released in mid-April estimated Iran’s COVID-19 deaths were double the official numbers and cases were many times higher than the official counts at the time.

The numbers in the report would have earned Iran the dubious honor of having the highest number of infections per capita. Even more astonishing than the coronavirus numbers in the report was the fact that the Iranian Parliament directly contradicted the Rouhani administration.

Parliamentarian Bahram Parsaei revealed that the Minister of Interior ignored his advice to postpone the Parliamentary elections. Similarly, the Iranian Health Minister said he had called for a halt to flights to and from China in January. Even though China air travel was officially banned January 31, Mahan Air flights to Beijing continued well into February.

What the US should do now

Where all this will lead is uncertain. Iranians are united more by their disgust with the regime than by a singular vision for the future.

But the trust between the Iranian regime and its citizens has been irrevocably shattered.

This vulnerability of Iran’s leaders offers an opportunity for the US to expand its policy to include strengthening connections with the Iranian people, while still opposing the regime.

If sanctions are lifted, the US should ensure that direct medical and financial aid are not diverted by the regime. If they remain in place, the US could still support nongovernmental aid groups that are approved by the Treasury Department’s economic sanctions division which give directly to the Iranian people.

The US rightly opposes the five billion dollar “coronavirus loan” Iran has requested from the IMF, which likely would be diverted to terrorist groups and foreign proxies. Is it a coincidence that at the same time nearly five billion dollars have “gone missing” from Iran’s state coffers?

Finally, the US should defend Iranians’ human rights, which include the right to clean water and proper sanitation – essential in a country suffering from bad water management – as well as the right to criticize their leaders. Specifically, US leaders (from Congress as well as the White House) could speak out about persecution of minorities, including religious ones, and the abuse and torture of political prisoners.

Now is the perfect time to match opposition to the Iranian regime with support for its people.

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