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Coronavirus is the ultimate test for Iran's social and political system

Simmering restlessness could transform into unrest driven by the poor, who are prepared to fight for their survival
A person wearing a mask walks past a mural in Tehran on 4 March (AFP)

Religious conservatives, who have the upper hand in Iran’s power structure, appear completely confused by the outbreak of coronavirus

On 23 February, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it “a ridiculous disease used as a good pretext” by Iran’s enemies to discourage people from voting in parliamentary elections. But on 3 March, after a growing number of government officials contracted the illness or died of the disease, he recommended that people read the seventh prayer of Sahifeh Sajjadieh, a collection of prayers attributed to the fourth Shia imam, to fight the disease. 

Qom: Centre of the epidemic

The centre of Iran’s coronavirus epidemic is the holy city of Qom, the religious capital of Iran. It is home to the Shrine of Hazrat-e Masoumeh, the sister of the eighth Shia imam, Imam Reza, and dozens of seminaries.

Qom is the bastion of hardliners. Imam Reza’s shrine, in the city of Mashhad, is an unshakable part of the conservative Shia belief system that these two shrines are “houses of healing”, and every year, millions seek relief from their ills at the two shrines.  

When whispers about shutting down the shrine of Hazrat-e Masoumeh to contain the disease began to spread, Seyyed Mohammad Saeedi, the custodian of the shrine, said that “people should be able to come here and heal from their ills, so it must stay open”. The organisation in charge of the shrine said in a statement that it was “at the highest level of antibacterial nature … and is a strong barrier against the coronavirus epidemic”. 

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It was initially unthinkable that the two shrines be closed to contain the spread of the virus. But in a clear retreat from ideology, the Imam Reza shrine is now almost completely closed, with all prayer books removed, and Hazrat-e Masoumeh shrine was also officially shut down.

This has already provoked protests in Qom, with police dispersing crowds who defied the shutdown and entered the Imam Reza shrine and the Hazrat-e Masoumeh shrine on Monday night. How long this unprecedented situation can be maintained without further unrest remains to be seen. 

Iran’s economy is in crisis. You can hardly find an economist in Iran, irrespective of political orientation, who does not view corruption and mismanagement as having as much responsibility for Iran’s economic woes as US sanctions

The central problem, even when US sanctions were lifted, was and remains the accelerating unequal distribution of wealth, which is in part the product of corruption. The economic macro indexes do not reflect the realities, including widening income inequality, as the wealthy do not declare their real income.

Deprived of services

A couple of years ago, the Mehr news agency published a thoroughly researched and shocking report on the deplorable living conditions of Iranian “countrysiders”. According to the report, which has since disappeared from the website, the countrysiders flood to large cities from rural areas in hope of finding jobs. Because they cannot afford to live in cities, they build their own slums around them, deprived of services such as health and education. 

It is an open secret that participants in Iran’s corrupt system, ranking 147 out of 176 countries in Transparency International's global corruption index, accumulate wealth through patronage, nepotism, cronyism and “rent seeking activities”, including bribery and other shady dealings involving misuse of the public sector.

Against this backdrop, the coronavirus epidemic has deepened the misery of the poor. Many have lost income due to the recession, and cannot afford hygiene items at skyrocketing prices to resist the disease.

Masoud Nili, a renowned economist who advised President Hassan Rouhani, in a shocking warning recently wrote: “The continuation of the recent trend could lead to the point where the poor … would be unable to protect themselves against coronavirus … they would become the epicentre of contracting and spreading the disease.” Iran's Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, affirmed this, saying on Tuesday: "Concentration of coronavirus disease is mainly in poor neighbourhoods."

Abbas Abdi, a prominent reformist activist and journalist, says that resolving the coronavirus epidemic is the mother of all tests of the Iranian political system. He argues that the government needs to exercise its authority to bring under control the current chaotic situation. But people are not cooperating with the government. Health Minister Saeed Namaki has expressed his deep grievances about people ignoring the ministry’s instructions. 

Abdi maintains that the “coronavirus crisis has involved all the institutions of the nation without exception, from family, to the education system, to religion, to the economy, to the government”. To combat such a far-reaching crisis, people must trust the government as the responsible body to fight the epidemic - but this trust has been seriously damaged in the last few months.

Erosion of trust

Last November, an abrupt decision to hike petrol prices sparked protests in cities and towns across Iran. Internet access was shut down, and while the country was disconnected from the outside world, hundreds were killed in an iron-fisted clampdown. 

Then came the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane and the killing of 176 passengers and crew. Initially, Iran strongly denied that the jetliner was downed by an Iranian missile, despite video evidence to the contrary. After the government ultimately admitted responsibility, furious protesters took to the streets.

These days, the army and the Revolutionary Guards have been instructed to clear streets, shops and public places across the country to combat the spread of coronavirus

Coverup appears to have held sway again during the coronavirus outbreak. There is a huge discrepancy between the official number of deaths (429 as of 10 March) and the number of deaths announced by local authorities and medical schools across the country: at least 853, excluding Tehran and Qom, the two cities with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths. 

The erosion of trust and vast discontent in large cities were on display during recent parliamentary elections. In Tehran, an unprecedented 75 percent of eligible voters did not vote. 

Simmering restlessness could transform into unrest driven by the poor, who are prepared to fight for their survival. These days, the army and the Revolutionary Guards have been instructed to clear streets, shops and public places across the country to combat the spread of coronavirus. Could this be a sign of the system preparing itself for the worst? 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Shahir Shahidsaless
Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East, and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East as well as the Huffington Post. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian. He tweets @SShahisaless.