The COVID-19 epidemic continues to ravage Iran without respite, possibly infecting tens of millions of Iranians and leading to hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and countless deaths. The true numbers will never be known, since the Islamic Republic has tried hard to keep them hidden. The epidemic is likely to get even worse absent a vaccine, as the regime lacks the will and capacity to contain its spread. Tehran’s malfeasance will lead to greater societal dissatisfaction, greater economic distress, and perhaps even contribute to the collapse of the regime, complicating the potential plans of a future Trump or Biden administration to negotiate with the Islamic Republic.
The COVID-19 epidemic has become so devastating that the regime has finally decided to openly acknowledge its existence and to urge Iranians to wear masks and practice some form of social distancing. Importantly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has taken to wearing a mask during major public speeches and appearances and has strongly urged Iranians to follow suit. This may not appear like a major step to outside observers, but it is an important policy shift considering the regime’s refusal to acknowledge and address the epidemic for months when it first appeared.
But it is too little, too late.
The regime has provided an official death toll of around 17,000. A new investigation by the BBC indicates the death toll to be much higher, at around 42,000 fatalities. President Hassan Rouhani has estimated that as many as 25 million Iranians may have been infected. If true, the death toll is certainly higher than the official count and most likely higher than the BBC estimate. Even the BBC number is likely too low, given the difficulty of ascertaining the true number of those who have been infected, hospitalized, and deceased from the disease.
The regime has prevented the true numbers from emerging by pressuring journalists to remain quiet and has shuttered one newspaper that quoted an expert who suggested that the official infection and death toll is five percent of the real numbers. Tehran has also told hospitals to hide the number of infected patients and to intentionally misclassify some fatalities as caused by other diseases, such as strokes and heart attacks.
The regime does not want Iranians to know the true numbers, as it would hurt its already very low legitimacy among the public. Rouhani has stated that the Islamic Republic cannot afford the economic costs of shutdowns, quarantines, and society-wide social distancing. The cost would certainly be high, as the economy may already be on the verge of collapse due to mismanagement, corruption, and sanctions. He is also allowing public gatherings for the holy month of Muharram to continue.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a public health crisis, but a direct threat to the regime’s stability and survival. The regime simply faces too many pressures at once, including a rapidly declining currency; nationwide economic strikes, particularly in the energy sector; and the likely explosion of an economic bubble caused by an overheated stock exchange, which is expected to burst any day. Iranian officials, including the minister of health, have expressed fear of a popular revolt due to the epidemic and poverty in general.
The regime, expecting future insurrections like the November 2019 uprising, has fortified government facilities and assigned the feared Basij paramilitary forces to protect government installations, as the law enforcement forces — the anti-riot police — may be less willing to shoot protestors en masse. The epidemic is unlikely to prevent mass gatherings like demonstrations, as most Iranians either appear to ignore social distancing rules (most cannot afford to quarantine) or are willing to take the risk of protesting publicly.
Future instability in Iran should be the most pertinent factor for both the Biden and the Trump campaigns as they devise an Iran policy. In particular, Biden has made providing relief for the epidemic a notable part of his campaign to “de-escalate” tensions with the regime if he is elected president.
However, COVID-19 relief is unlikely to be a major incentive for the Islamic Republic. Iran has access to medicine, as proven by recent shipments sent through a financial mechanism established by the Swiss government. South Korea has agreed to use Iranian funds in escrow to purchase and ship vital medicine to Iran as well. The regime’s failure in addressing the epidemic is not due to U.S. sanctions, as some claim, but the systematic failure of the Islamic Republic to care about and for its citizens.
Iranians are likely to have the epidemic on top of their minds as they go to the streets again, not only in an attempt to protest the regime’s negligence, but to end a governing system that has allowed the epidemic to ravage Iranian society with no end in sight.
Alireza Nader is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute focusing on foreign policy and national security. Follow him on Twitter @AlirezaNader