Iran’s Terrible Year and The ‘Phase Two’ Gamble
Federica Zoja 28 April 2020

Over a week ago the Iranian government decreed the reopening of economic activities, beginning with public offices and private activities in the capital. Activities restarted despite the widespread contagion of Covid-19 in the territory: after Turkey, the Iranian Islamic Republic is currently the most seriously affected country in the Middle Eastern ones, with over 90,000 officially infected. Precisely for this reason, the rapid transition to the so-called phase two, that of the coexistence between man and virus in everyday life, seems to have the flavor of an unhealthy and very political choice. “Normalization serves the Islamic Republic, but it certainly is not in the interest of the nation,” explains Pejman Abdolmohammadi, Senior Assistant Professor at the School of International Studies of the University of Trento.

The controversy over the non-transparency of the Iranian authorities in communicating the numbers of the pandemic to the population and the international community is mounting. Yet the reopening can be considered a fait-accompli. Why?

Because the Iranian economic condition is so worn out that, in order to avoid total paralysis, the authorities prefer to risk the worsening of the health crisis rather than face the collapse of the socio-economic context. The real data, in any case, certainly does reflect the officially communicated numbers: the estimated number of dead is at least double the 5,000 announced by the government, and the infected are more likely triple. Thus, those who can afford it have self-isolated themselves and will continue to live in isolation regardless of what the authorities have ordered.

Phase two has therefore been accelerated, so to speak, for love of country or regime?

Definitely regime. In this regard, some believe that the national quarantine has never been proclaimed because it is too difficult for the authorities to enforce. This inability to guarantee its application in a capillary way would have exposed the weaknesses of the Islamic Republic to the population. Also, in this case, the communication to citizens was not transparent and a large part of the public perceived it.

Tehran’s enemies hope that the Covid-19 crisis will definitively corner the Ayatollah’s regime. Is that what’s happening?

Yes and no. In my opinion, popular legitimation remains at the same levels as before the epidemic. General dissatisfaction is not only a fact of today. Except that citizens now express their criticisms a little less in physical spaces and a little more in virtual ones. A large part of Iranians do not trust what is reported by the authorities: in this specific case, their mistrust was confirmed by what occurred at the beginning of the epidemic, when an outbreak broke out in Qom, probably triggered by Chinese students enrolled in the local Islamic schools. Religious and economic interests (China Iran’s main trading partner, followed by Russia, ed.) have prevailed over sounding the alarm on the health crisis, which was delayed when the infection had already spread. People long continued to travel to and from China without restrictions. A serious negligence, and people have understood this, that has made Iran not only an infected country, but also a harmful agent for other countries in the region.

So, what could turn 2020 into a crucial year for Iran?

The American elections, one way or the other. Internationally, the Islamic Republic can be satisfied with how things are going: the virus makes it pass as a victim of sanctions. Even internally, this narrative could work, authorities could rely on saying “We would like to give money and assistance to the population, but we cannot because American sanctions do not allow it”. Then, on the international scene, Coronavirus is creating new balances: their Chinese ally is recovering well, indeed it is emerging as a winner. And the only real enemy, the Trump administration is viewing its reconfirmation with a little more uncertainty due to the pandemic. Tehran can thank Covid-19 for the blow to Washington. If Joe Biden were elected in the presidential elections at the end of the year, then the Islamic Republic may be able to count on another twenty years of life.

How widespread is anti-American sentiment in Iran right now?

In fact, the anti-Chinese sentiment is more common among people after the outbreak of the epidemic. I’d say it’s similar to the anti-American resentment of the 70s. And between Donald Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama, the latter is the main target of those who wished for political change and have felt betrayed. There is anger and resentment.

Yet it seems that the majority of the western intelligentsia do not understand this.

Yes, western elites – who have contact with what is portrayed by the mainstream press as the ‘reformist’ Iranian elite – did not understand that in 2009, when the green movement mobilized protests, the internal opponents of the Islamic Republic expected Obama to make a clear choice in favor of the uprising. A tough stance. Among the most common slogans I remember: “Obama, either with them or with us”. And now they see Donald Trump as the only enemy of the ayatollahs who can bring about the necessary change.

However, Iranian society, in economic terms, is at the end of its strength. Repeatedly struck by fate, in a Rossini-like crescendo. How long, in your opinion, can it still weather the attrition?

Yes, several catastrophic events have struck a population already subjected to the dramatic consequences of economic sanctions. Just since the start of 2020, there was the killing of General Qasem Soleimani and the shooting down of the Ukrainian Boeing, but above all, in November 2019, the twelve days of repression of large-scale anti-government demonstration; according to sources, between 300 and 1,500 deaths are estimated. And, I want to remind you, that those twelve days had already effectively quarantined the entire Iranian population with the total blockade of the web, isolating them from the rest of the world. That experience has left an indelible mark on the people.



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