Of all the countries hit by the coronavirus, Iran could probably do with it the least. Facing harsh US sanctions since President Trump announced he was pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Deal) in 2018, Iran’s economy was in bad shape. In 2019, the International Monetary fund estimated its economy had contracted by 9.5%. Oil exports, on which the regime relies for revenue, had collapsed in the wake of the sanctions; and the value of the Rial had dropped 50%. With coronavirus cases mounting, there have now been calls for the US to suspend the sanctions. These have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Iran announced its first coronavirus cases and two deaths on February 19th in Qom, an important religious and political city. From there, the virus spread rapidly, with a rising death toll that included many government officials who had been campaigning for legislative elections on February 21st. While the government has been quick to defend its initial reaction, many have criticised the government’s response to the crisis as “damage control”. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, claimed Iran had “ignored repeated warnings from its own health officials”.
Indeed, the Iranian government was slow to respond. According to health ministry officials, the first cases of patients with high fevers and lung infections were detected in Qom as early as January. There has been speculation that these cases were kept quiet due to the elections in February. However, others point out that Iran only received its first test kits on February 17th and reported its first cases two days later, as soon as individuals had been tested.
However, even after the first cases were confirmed, the Iranian government largely tried to underplay the threat of the virus and was slow to take strong measures. The Ayatollah even suggested the virus was a “foreign plot” that had been engineered specifically to target Iran’s genome. Schools, universities, cinemas and other cultural venues were shut down by February 28th,, but they were initially due to open again after a few days. While some religious gatherings were limited, important shrines remained open.
Importantly, intercity travel was only limited in early March and the government has refrained from imposing city-wide lockdowns. In particular, despite warnings from the government, around Nowruz (March 21st), the Persian New Year, many people continued to travel through the country. On March 21st, the Iranian Red Crescent reported that approximately 3 million people had left the 13 worst-hit provinces by road in the previous four days.
The government’s attitude towards the virus has since changed. On March 26th, Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian President, announced 20% of the budget would be allocated to mitigating the economic impact of the virus through grants and low interest loans. On April 6th, the Ayatollah Khamenei approved Rouhani’s request for €1 billion from Iran’s sovereign wealth fund. Iran has also requested $5 billion in emergency funding from the International Monetary Fund for the first time since the 1960s. The country joined many others when it announced in mid-March that 85,000 prisoners would be released to prevent the spread of the virus amongst detainees. On April 6th, however, Rouhani announced “low-risk” economic activities would be resumed out of concerns for Iran’s economy.
The key point of contention in Iran is over the impact of US sanctions. Iran currently has a shortage of tests and medical equipment including ventilators and masks, inhibiting its ability to fight the disease. Furthermore, due to US sanctions the Iranian government is currently strapped for cash. Crucially, this makes it incredibly difficult for Iran to order a nation-wide lockdown as it does not have the financial means to support its 84 million inhabitants with far-reaching stimulus packages. Therefore, Iranian workers who should remain at home are still going to work in order to feed their families.
The US, which announced additional sanctions on March 26th, has repeatedly pointed out that humanitarian assistance is exempted from the sanctions regime and Iran should still be able to fight the disease. However, many have pointed out that companies selling medical equipment are disincentivised from trading with Iran when financial transactions could be rejected. There are still ways for Iran to purchase equipment. Some European states, such as the UK, Germany and France, employed INSTEX, a special purpose vehicle to facilitate humanitarian transactions to Iran for the first time on March 31st, sending medical goods to help combat the virus.
There have been calls from across the international community for US sanctions to be lifted. Human Rights Watch stated that restrictions on financial transactions and aggressive US rhetoric have “drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports”. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also called for “sectoral sanctions” to be “eased or suspended”. Within the US, Democrats including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have called for an easing of sanctions against Iran.
The Iranian government has, however, been sending contradictory messages to the international community. Whilst it has criticised the US sanctions and called for them to be lifted, on March 23rd, an offer by the US to provide aid was rejected, with President Rouhani claiming “American leaders are lying”. Many have criticised Iran for focusing on geopolitics rather than the most effective solution. Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that Iran could “overcome any kind of crisis […] including the coronavirus outbreak”. Iran’s determination to fight coronavirus without external aid was further demonstrated when it expelled a group of Doctors Without Borders from Isfahan, a move that has been heavily criticised.
Where things stand
As of April 8th, Iran was reporting 64,586 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 3,993 deaths. Significantly, the Iranian government seems to be “flattening the curve” of new cases. A study that had previously predicted the maximum number of deaths in Iran could amount to 3.5 million was recently revised to 1.4 million. However, this has come under scrutiny, with many foreign observers questioning the authenticity of the numbers. Within Iran itself, people have begun to question the number of cases and distrust the government’s handling of the crisis, in particular the lack of regular information.
However, others have pointed out that without adequate tests, the real number of cases or deaths could be unknown even to the government, and what seems like a cover-up could be mere ignorance. Either way, given how ill-equipped Iran is for such a pandemic, the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.
Iran is the epicentre of the pandemic in the Middle East, so how well the country contains the virus has repercussions across the region. Afghanistan, which has 367 cases so far, has seen an influx of returnees from Iran in the hundreds of thousands over the last few weeks. 210 of Afghan cases were such returnees. Unless the virus is effectively contained in Iran, the pandemic is likely to continue to spread into countries woefully unable to deal with it.
Image: Zoheir Seidanloo via commons.wikimedia.org