Is Iran on the brink of a coronavirus coup?
If you don’t think that the coronavirus is a political issue, you must be self-quarantining under a rock somewhere. People everywhere are watching as their leaders respond to the pandemic. In free nations, their assessments will be delivered at the polls, where some careers will be applauded and others ended. But the credibility and durability of totalitarian states are at risk, too. Some analysts even think that Chinese leader Xi Jinping may be vulnerable to a coup.
Could the virus from Wuhan accomplish in a matter of months what seven U.S. presidents, 19 CIA directors, and legions of Iranian secularists and dissidents could only dream about achieving in Tehran? The answer is maybe — the coronavirus may just deliver the coup de grace to the theocratic dictatorship that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini started 41 years ago, but only if the devastation and feckless government response inspires everyone, from the lower classes to the ruling classes, to say “No more.”
We have been here before. By 2009, a genuine, indigenous, counterrevolution was afoot in Iran, but Barack Obama ignored it in his efforts to pursue diplomatic relations with fictitious Iranian “moderates.” Since then, protests have become more frequent. Defiance of the Islamic Republic has become bold. It will have to become even bolder to topple the regime.
Iran was hit by COVID-19 worse than many countries because of the gross incompetence, ignorance and superstition of its leaders. Its official infection rate and daily body counts are no more trustworthy than China’s. The Iranian people understand this, and increasingly they are blaming their leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
When news of the virus first reached Iran, denial was the reflexive response. Seeking to prevent a massive boycott of the Feb. 21 parliamentary elections (in which only pre-approved candidates vie for seats) Khamenei said the threat was exaggerated, that “negative propaganda about the virus” was being used by Iran’s enemies to “dissuad[e] Iranian voters.”
The most bizarre form of denial came as religious fanatics and sycophants seeking favor with the regime posted videos of themselves licking shrines at Shiite holy sites, daring the disease to infect them and expressing confidence that their faith would protect them. One said he came to Qom to show everyone that the virus “is nothing but stories. They want to take away our religion. They want to harm us. What they are doing is meaningless. We won’t listen to this.”
Those who were confident that their leaders were telling them the truth and that their faith would save them probably were encouraged by the regime’s triumphalism. Iranian scientists such as Hossein Ali Shahriari, a member of the medical committee of the Iranian parliament (majlis), boasted that medical experts from all over the world were coming to Iran not to offer help to the hapless but to learn from Iranian scientists. “In light of the measures we have taken in Iran,” he said, the outbreak “will certainly not last long.” He discounted advice from World Health Organization officials: “They certainly don’t have more expertise than the experts in Iran.”
And what expertise did Iranian scientists offer to the people? Cleric Abbas Tabrizian gave this advice: “Before sleeping, put a cotton ball dipped in violet oil to the anus.” Presumably someone gave Khamenei better advice because on Feb. 15 his bodyguards prevented Iranians from kissing his hand. This should come back to haunt him. The opposition forces should publicize it widely.
When the bodies started to pile up and denial no longer was an option, Iran’s leaders turned to conspiracy theories. The regime’s perennial target of hate, Israel and “the Jews,” were blamed in a March 5 broadcast on Iran’s Press TV, an English-language disinformation outlet: “Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of coronavirus against Iran.”
On March 10, Gen. Gholamreza Jalali, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Civil Defense Organization hinted that the coronavirus “has many characteristics of a biological weapon. … The United States has many biological labs in the region surrounding Iran that may be responsible for the spread of the virus.” Another regime figure, Hossein Momeni, was more direct on March 10 when he pronounced it “without a doubt a man-made disease that has emerged as a weapon against the Shiites, against the Muslims, and against the Iranians.”
On March 22, Khamenei himself spoke to the nation on live television and claimed that the U.S. created the coronavirus, citing two of his “experts” whose research shows that Israeli and American spies were using “demons” to spread the virus in Iran.
A decade or two ago, Khamenei might have ridden this disaster out comfortably, but recent riots in Iran suggest an awakening of the populace who see through the illusion of democracy in Iran. And the opposition is growing in number and influence. On March 29, a group of 100 Iranian academics published a letter blaming Khamenei for the COVID-19 deaths in their country. The letter was released on a website that the Middle East Media Research Institute cites as being associated with Mir Hossein Mousavi, the 2009 Green Revolution leader still living a precarious existence under house arrest.
Their letter begins: “Mr. Khamenei, you are the No. 1 culprit in the COVID-19 pandemic becoming a national disaster!” This opening salutation “Mr. Khamenei” (instead of “Dear Supreme Leader” or even “Dear Ayatollah Khamenei”) is a bold affront. The letter goes on to accuse Khamenei of “obfuscation” and mocks his “conspiracy-based worldview.” It ends by bitterly noting the ironic “disgrace [of] a public afflicted with poverty and starvation in a country awash with petroleum.” These are fighting words.
There comes a time in every successful revolution when the military stops following orders from its illegitimate leaders and sides with the people. Even though Khamenei commands a police state skilled at terrorizing, the growing COVID-19 death toll in Iran could provide the tipping point for the military to stop following orders.
So what are the odds of a coronavirus coup in Iran? I’d give it 50-50, especially if senior members of the regime die from the disease. That judgment, admittedly, is colored by my hope for regime change in Iran. I was discussing the matter last week with Daniel Pipes, who has followed Iran more closely and longer than I, when he threw cold water on my optimism: “I’ll bet any amount you want, even odds, that the regime is there a year from now, even two.” I didn’t take the bet.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
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