COVID-19 and the Iranian Shadows of War

Coronavirus has plunged Iran into the country’s biggest crisis since its war with Iraq. More than 30 years later, the lingering effects of the war are shaping Iran’s reaction to the pandemic.

Expert comment Updated 15 September 2020 Published 8 April 2020 3 minute READ
Spraying disinfectant at Tajrish bazaar in Tehran, Iran, during the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images.

Spraying disinfectant at Tajrish bazaar in Tehran, Iran, during the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, many global leaders have invoked war analogies – from the Pearl Harbor attack to the collective spirit on display during the Second World War – to highlight past lessons learned or rally their populations.

For Iran’s leadership, more recent war analogies hold resonance and help explain the ideological and political conundrum limiting an effective COVID-19 response. While the Islamic Republic has weathered a multitude of challenges, COVID-19 is putting unprecedented strain on Iran’s already fragile, heavily-sanctioned economy and further exposing domestic political fissures amid ongoing international tensions.

Iran has been identified as the regional epicentre of the pandemic with a steadily rising number of deaths, including several of the country’s political and military elite. Yet the Iranian government has not evoked the collective memory of the war as an opportunity for national resistance and mobilization.

Sluggish and poorly managed

This is unsurprising, because thus far the Iranian government’s response to COVID-19 has been sluggish and poorly managed. After an initial slow response, Iran then attempted to downplay the impact of the virus, covering up the number of cases and deaths and blaming the United States, before implementing a poorly coordinated action plan marred by government infighting.

For the Iranian leadership, the Iran-Iraq war has been the single most influential and defining period – it has impacted its political ideology, domestic and security policies and international relations. More than half a million Iranians died, and a paranoid worldview and sense of isolation was cemented among many elite leaders such as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The war created a valiant culture of leadership from Qassem Soleimani to presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hashemi Rafsanjani and, over time, has resulted in the development of Iran’s asymmetrical defense capabilities.

The war enabled a dark purge of political opponents and the gradual birth of Iran’s reformist faction, all while the ethos of sacrifice and martyrdom was linked to the collective notions of resistance.

These would be carried forward in other resistance campaigns both regional and economic. Most defining was Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous 1988 decision to ‘drink the poisoned chalice’ and end the long war. Three decades later, Iran continues to contend with those outcomes.

To acknowledge that the COVID-19 crisis could have equally profound consequences would add further pressure to the Islamic Republic at a time of incomparable vulnerability. Even before this crisis, the Iranian government linked sanctions to economic warfare, making future negotiations conditional on sanctions relief.

Iranian hardliners used the opportunity to promote Iran’s subsistence-based resistance economy designed to insulate Iran’s economy from external shocks such as sanctions. While both groups recognize the economic urgency, their contending strategies help explain the muddled government response and the ongoing ideological competition between the political elites.

Rouhani has argued that a full lockdown of the Iranian economy is impossible because it is already under significant strain from sanctions - the Iranian economy experienced a 9.5% contraction in 2019 and is expected to worsen in the coming year.

That said, through Iran’s New Year holidays the government did take action to slow the spread of the virus, discouraging travel and shutting schools, pilgrimage sites and cancelling Friday prayers. Finally, on 4 April, after receiving permission from Khamenei to do so, Rouhani withdrew $1 billion from Iran’s National Development Fund and is distributing the money through loans and credits to 23 million households.

Aid from a number of Iran’s parastatal agencies was also announced. Conversely, in his annual New Year’s speech the supreme leader securitized the crisis by laying blame on the United States for spreading the virus as a form of biological terrorism. Iran’s army chief of staff Major General Bagheri was tasked with building hospitals and the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps given authority to clear the streets.

The recent expulsion of Médecins Sans Frontières from Iran highlights the mix of paranoia and resistance culture still on display. US sanctions on Iran have significantly weakened Iran’s economy and limited Tehran’s ability to purchase much needed medical supplies and equipment. Unable to access its foreign reserves due to sanctions, the Rouhani government has applied for a $5 billion loan from the IMF.

European countries alongside a number of US members of congress have appealed to the Trump administration to ease sanctions on humanitarian grounds. While Washington continues to pursue its steadfast approach, referring to Iran’s campaign as a ‘sanctions relief scam’, Germany, France, and the UK have offered $5 million in aid and launched INSTEX – a trading mechanism designed to circumvent sanctions to allow non-sanctioned humanitarian trade.

The impact of coronavirus on Iranian society remains to be seen. But the impact of sanctions has placed heavy economic and psychological burden on the people. Feeling abandoned by the Iranian state and the United States could produce a mix of contradictory nationalistic and independent impulses.

The social contract – already fragile amid protests and government repression – reveals declining trust. Without national mobilization and calls for unity reminiscent of the war period, Iranians have stepped in, highlighting the continued resilience of civil society. Support for the medical establishment has been celebrated throughout the country and on social media. Charities, the private sector - through one initiative known as Campaign Nafas (Breathe) - and diaspora groups have initiated fundraising drives and assistance measures.

Iran’s relations with the international community, and specifically the United States, remain an unresolved consequence of the war. The 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement was the closest Tehran and Washington came to resolving decades of tensions, containment and sanctions.

COVID-19 has further heightened the trajectory of tensions between Tehran and Washington suggesting that any new deal, while necessary, is not on the cards. Tit-for-tat military exchanges have been on the rise in Iraq and Yemen while American and Iranian leaders issue threats and warnings of potential escalation.

Abdullah Nasseri, an advisor to Iran’s reformists, recently stated that in order to manage the coronavirus crisis, the Iranian government needed to make a decision akin to the 1988 United Nations resolution 598 that ended war hostilities. Ayatollah Khomeini famously commented on that ceasefire, stating: ‘Happy are those who have departed through martyrdom. Unhappy am I that I still survive.… Taking this decision is more deadly than drinking from a poisoned chalice. I submitted myself to Allah’s will and took this drink for His satisfaction’.

While a similar compromise today might appear deadly to the political establishment, it is clear that a paradigm shift away from the shadows of Iran’s last war is urgently needed to manage the challenges stemming from COVID-19.