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Reciprocity Between Coronavirus and the Islamic Republic of Iran

The coronavirus and the Islamic Republic have strengthened each other and provided suitable conditions for each other’s continued existence. The Islamic Republic has strongly contributed to the spread of the virus, and the virus has consolidated the position of the Islamic Republic, enabling it to pursue and implement a variety of repressive austerity and security policies under the pretext of containing the pandemic. This article describes the trajectory of the events since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and how this reciprocity has unfolded.

When the Islamic Republic contracted the coronavirus

The overt and covert defenders of the Islamic Republic call it “Iranophobia” when the country’s status as a hotspot of the global pandemic is pointed out. But the truth is that the Iranian government’s deliberate failure to inform the public and control the spread of the Coronavirus has led even its friendliest neighbours with the most ties to the Islamic Republic to exercise tight control over their borders with Iran, or close them altogether.

The Iranian government initially considered the arrival and spread of the new coronavirus “confidential” information for several months. As a result, the existence of this virus was not reported, and the government did not take any action against it. In fact, during verbal and written clashes between government officials from various factions, it became clear that the Iranian government had been hiding cases of a virus, now known to be Covid-19 since at least December 2019. When the world’s media became dominated by news of the coronavirus outbreak, the Iranian government finally acknowledged that the epidemic had entered the “holy land of Shiism”. Even then, no section of the government apparatus took precautions to control the spread of the virus.

The Iranian government not only strictly refused to cancel mass events like pilgrimages but also allowed frequent flights to China by Mahan Airlines for several weeks even after the virus had largely spread within the country. Later on, these flights were identified as the main source of the virus’s arrival in Iran. Surprisingly, even after the government agencies announced the closure of Mahan flights to China, according to documents revealed later, those flights remained open for several weeks after the official closure. It should be noted that Mahan Airlines is affiliated with a very large private holding in Iran, owned by individuals and gangs close to Hashemi Rafsanjani, the recently deceased chairman of the Expediency Council, and its director, Hossein Marashi, Hashemi Rafsanjani’s brother in law. In the power war between the capitalist ruling factions of Iran, Hashemi Rafsanjani’s band, despite the differences between their spiritual father and the leader of the Islamic Republic, was able to gain a monopoly over large parts of the tourism industry in Iran. The fact that Mahan flights remained open for that long is a glimpse of how much influence the band has on government decision-making. Moreover, at the time, given the escalation of US sanctions against Iran, it was very important for the Iranian government not to offend its superpower ally, China, in any way. In fact, the Iranian government’s negligence in shutting down flights to China, which had been cancelled worldwide to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, was so special that the Chinese ambassador in Iran officially thanked the Iranian officials on his Twitter account. The Iranian government buttered up their Chinese allies at the cost of people being killed by the deadly virus.

Secrecy about the coronavirus, of course, eventually gave way to information management concerning the disease. This news management, however, was not concerned with planning to comply with health protocols, but with the main purpose of keeping the public unaware of this deadly disease. While the official radio and television were completely silent about the coronavirus, government officials who mentioned it, described reports as “exaggerated” and attributed them to “rumours” and “propaganda by the enemies of the system”. They denied in several interviews that the virus had spread to Qom, Tehran, Mazandaran, and Gilan provinces, when already large numbers of people and hospital staff had already died from the disease in these provinces. In the most iconic of these denials, Iraj Haririchi, the deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Health, was hospitalized for contracting the coronavirus just two days after holding a press conference to deny the drastic extent of the virus’s spread. However, after his discharge from the hospital, not only was he not fired, but was appointed by the Minister of Health as the Minister’s representative in the special government workforce for the Corona crisis. While the government was campaigning to deny and downplay the threat of the virus, the judicial and security institutions issued announcements that any unofficial information about it would be a crime against national security, and publications were banned from “exaggerating the Coronavirus”. This was not an idle threat, as a few days after the government’s announcement, several people were arrested in different cities for spreading unofficial news about the outbreak. After a while, following a tradition of the Islamic Republic, some of them appeared on state television and acknowledged their affiliation with the “foreign opposition” and “foreign countries”.

The campaign to downplay Covid was accompanied by the emergence of a variety of Islamic medicine professionals. Traditional scholars in the government-controlled media recommended the “Pilgrimage of Ashura” (a prayer in memory of those killed in the Karbala uprising in 680 AD) as well as rubbing violet oil on the anus as a treatment for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, groups of “Maddah”, who specifically sing mourning laments, were sent to the streets of many cities to fight the spread of the virus by chanting lamentations.

At the same time, the religious scholars of the seminary of Qom, the city identified as a centre of the outbreak at the beginning, were secretly sent to other cities to stay away from the outbreak of the virus and settled in government facilities. It is clear that this action led to further spread of the virus by the fugitive religious scholars. While the Iranian government was refusing to quarantine contaminated cities and places including the tombs of holy religious figures, and trying hard to hide the real death toll, the capital’s best-equipped hospitals were dedicated to treating infected government officials.

When the Iranian government finally accepted the need to declare quarantine, this only included a few cases. For instance, public and private factories were refused even a day’s closure, and workers were threatened by factory owners and managers that absenteeism would result in sanctioning of the new year bonus. In addition, a large number of people were unable to comply with quarantine conditions. The massive level of poverty and unavailability of health facilities for the masses, as a result of three decades of privatization and continuous implementation of neoliberal policies in all areas, including health, had already eliminated the possibility of quarantine for people who must work every day to earn a living.

Although the Iranian government demonstrated the utmost secrecy, negligence, and obstruction of transparent information even about basic health protocols, they did encourage Instagram celebrities, film and television actors, as well as some sports figures to speak on their personal pages about the seriousness of the Covid threat and encourage people to wear masks, maintain social distancing and stay home. None of these new public health ambassadors, of course, stated how those living in the shadow of public misery and widespread poverty could stay home. Nor did they mention how those people can maintain social distancing in packed crowded public transportation, and how they are able to pay for expensive and inaccessible masks. These celebrities made video clips, mostly of children of wealthy government families wearing masks and maintaining social distancing in their glamorous houses.

More than nine months after the official announcement of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, the situation has not changed. While government officials announce the “good news” of controlling the spread of the virus every few days, the death toll is only rising even according to the official statistics. Despite the promise of Iraj Haririchi in May 2020, stating that Iran will not see further waves after the successful control of the virus, the country is now grappling with the third wave. Within these past nine months, all the limited medical facilities worn out and many hospital staff have died. On October 19, even the official record which is always manipulated to reduce the actual number substantially, indicates 337 deaths in one day.

Therefore, declaring Iran as one of the centres of the coronavirus outbreak in the world has nothing to do with “Iranophobia”. The Iranian people were in fact the best carriers of the virus among each other and the world, as accurate information was hidden from them for several months. Then, they were told for weeks that the virus is a simple flu and not very dangerous. Many could not practically stay at home during the official, partial lockdown, and when that ended, they went unprotected into streets and workplaces. As a result, we can count the Islamic Republic among the best friends of the coronavirus.

A new flavour of suppression

It was not only the Islamic Republic that contributed to the spread of the virus in Iran as well as the entire world. However, the outbreak gave the Islamic Republic the unique opportunity to implement a raft of security, political and economic policies under the pretext of the “coronavirus conditions”.

In March 2019, the details of the national budget for the following year was disclosed due to conflict between the various factions within the Islamic Republic. This revealed that the budgets related to education, health, housing, social security and the like were drastically reduced, while those for military and religious institutions were increased dramatically. The government’s priorities once again proved that the Islamic Republic does not care about alleviating the economic problems of the Iranian people, rather only financially protecting its supporting institutions with the help of which its rule can survive. The March 2019 budget put the government under a considerable amount of pressure. While the parliament was closed for the short national quarantine, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, approved the next year’s budget to proceed to the Guardian Council. This council comprises a small assembly of six clerics and six jurists, all directly or indirectly appointed by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. Their role is to oversee parliamentary approvals so that they do not conflict with the constitution and, more importantly, with Islamic rules. Therefore, the national budget for the following year was not only approved without the usual hassle, in which different fractions usually debate over the budget allocation, but was not even revealed to the public due to the closure of the parliament.

Another yearly challenge for the government is approval of the annual minimum wage, which is decided by a delegation consisting of representatives of the employers’ union, the Ministry of Labor and the labour representatives. It should be noted that when we speak of “workers’ representatives” in the Islamic Republic, we are in fact talking about the elected representatives of the yellow unions, which under the name of the Islamic Council of Labor and Workers’ House have cooperated with the security services to suppress workers’ independent struggles. However, even these yellow-bellies defend the workers’ interest against the alliance between employers’ representatives and the Ministry of Labor. During these meetings, independent labour organisations often organise rallies and/or issue statements against the board’s approval of low wages. Due to all these activities, March is usually a challenging month for the Islamic Republic. This year, however, due to the coronavirus, the minimum wage was approved through an unknown procedure without any reflection by the media.

This period also severely reduced the job security of the working class. Mass layoffs, which have been an integral part of neoliberal policies in Iran for the past few decades, intensified during the pandemic. Employers in the private and public sectors supported by the government, under the pretext of “reduced production”, “shortage of imported raw materials”, “market shutdown” and “special conditions”, fired a multitude of workers. Before the pandemic, the fear of workers’ collective reaction would have made them hesitate. Then, when society was subjugated by the slogan of “stay at home”, and struggling for its survival, the employers took the opportunity to take what they saw as their due. This did not mean a real reduction in production, of course. In many factories where workers were laid off, the working hours of those remaining were increased substantially, and they were forced to work overtime under the threat of dismissal. According to independent labour organizations, in some workplaces shifts were extended to twelve hours.

The Iranian people became aware of the true danger posed by the new virus through Persian-speaking media outside of Iran and various channels on the Telegram mobile app. People realized that they must try to follow health protocols, but the reality of their life does not allow them to do so. The fear of death again worked in favour of the Islamic Republic. Except for a few workers’ protests, including the glorious Haft Tappeh sugarcane workers’ strike, other protests all faded away. For instance, the protests held for many months by retirees were also cancelled due to the higher risk that the virus poses to the elderly. Last April, sources inside Iran reported that almost everyone knew someone who had contracted the virus. In fact, news of covid-related death has become a regular occurrence for the people.

While the government, utilizing their official and unofficial media, attempted to identify people not complying with health protocols and make them the main culprit for the spread of the virus, it was the people who tried to save themselves through different grassroots initiatives. For instance, in the Kurdistan province, where traditions of revolutionary struggle are still alive, in some cities institutions called “local committees” were formed to inform people about the protocols. They also attempted to disinfect the city, and provided hygiene items, scarce food and masks for the poor neighbourhoods. Similar initiatives with different motivators, mostly in the form of charities, were launched in other cities. In fact, the people who are facing death every day and also seeing that the government neither wanted nor could take effective action to control the disease, have strived to save themselves and those around them with the help of each other. These initiatives, however, were quickly identified as a “threat” by the Iranian government’s security agencies. Security agencies simultaneously pursued two policies in connection with these popular initiatives. On the one hand, forces affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards tried to infiltrate these groups and get into a position to take control of them, under the guise of participating in charity work. On the other hand, activists in these groups were repeatedly summoned to security agencies and warned to not create the conditions for “abuse” by the Islamic Republic’s political opponents. As a result, many of these groups quickly fell into ineffective associations whose activities were reduced to distributing food among the poor.

While even non-essential factories and other workplaces have remained open since the very beginning of the outbreak, the Islamic Republic closed down all schools and universities. The outbreak created a unique opportunity for the Islamic Republic to temporarily get rid of two forces fighting against the status quo. The closure of universities and schools coincided with the arrest of student activists as well as teachers influential in the student and teacher protests. Many of them were sentenced to prison or released on bail to stand trial in the future.

Similar to many other countries, Iran moved to an entirely “virtual education” during the pandemic. Student activists, who are generally left-leaning, launched “Against Virtual Education”, which is itself a virtual campaign. With this campaign, they point to the systematic discrimination in this form of education, and call on the education authorities within the government to make substantial changes to eliminate this hidden discrimination. The most important criticism posed by this campaign was that with the existing level of poverty in society, many students do not have access to the necessary facilities to use e-learning. Although more than 4,000 students welcomed the campaign, it failed to have any considerable impact. Ironically, the main reason for its failure was that it was “virtual”. Owing to the closure of universities and the impossibility of organizing protest rallies on campus, the authorities did not react to the campaign.

After the summer, when all public places reopened with no restrictions, the only places remaining closed and considered as being in a “special state” were the universities. Apparently, for the Islamic Republic officials, the only place where there was a possibility of transmission of the virus was the universities. However, in reality, the government officials were implementing their overdue plan for another “cultural revolution” in the universities. The “Cultural Revolution” refers to an event begun in April 1980 by forces loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini. These forces are set to overthrow the council-based management of the universities which emerged in the 1979 revolution and replace them by pro-government vice-chancellors.

At the time, universities were one of the core social bases of (mainly religious) left or communist organizations and political parties. Khomeini’s pro-government armed attacks on universities across the country over one week led to the closure of all Iranian universities for several years, the expulsion of hundreds of students and professors, the formation of a special committee to Islamize courses and the imposition of “selection centres” for monitoring recruitment by university administrators. The “selection centres” were committees composed of forces loyal to the government and affiliated with the newly established security apparatus of the Islamic Republic, whose main tasks were to verify the political background of students who had passed the university entrance exams and were about to enter the university.

The need for another “cultural revolution” has always been on the minds of government officials, and now thanks to the coronavirus, their dream seems to be coming true. In the last years of Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency, and especially after the victory of Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential election, the university campuses were battlegrounds between the Islamic Republic and protesting students. These conflicts have sometimes led to important events such as the July 1999 student uprising. However, students have never threatened the survival of the Islamic Republic as they have in the past few years. Student union councils have actively struggled against the neoliberal policies of several consecutive governments toward higher education. Their class-based struggles demonstrated their great potential risk to the Islamic Republic during the protests in December 2017. “Reformists, Conservatives, Your Story is Over” was the main slogan of the protest organised by the student union at the University of Tehran, quickly becoming the main slogan of the December 2017 uprising. The slogan provoked a strong reaction not only from the repressive institutions, but also from the Iranian government’s reformist critics, who were angry enough to encourage the security services to deal decisively with the students. Within days, more than 90 students active in union councils in Tehran and some other cities were detained at universities, dormitories, homes, or in street ambushes. Although all were released on bail a few weeks later, many of them are still facing open court cases.

From then on, it was clear to the Islamic Republic that the university and its activists had the potential to shape unorganized protests into something more dangerous, by contributing slogans that can give a specific direction to the protests. The students’ effective solidarity with the teachers’ struggles and workers’ strikes in the years following the December 2017 uprising increased the government’s incentive to decisively suppress the university through various security institutions. All of these evidence the repressive nature of the university closures, under the pretext of fighting coronavirus. Leila Hosseinzadeh, a union activist and social science student at the University of Tehran who was released from prison in March 2020 after seven and a half months imprisonment, recently described the purpose behind university shut down: “They have closed the door of the university and that’s it … If they once brought a tank in the middle of the university, now the great name of the coronavirus is in place and they say with every word, “Aren’t you concerned about your life?” … But, we are concerned about our lives. As if they are concerned about the lives of our fathers and mothers who went to work at the risk of death or became unemployed all these days, or lost their jobs and businesses, whose savings ran out, whose lives were plundered on the stock exchange, who died in the hospital, who committed suicide. The government, as an institution that should protect the lives of citizens, did not bother. Likewise, every day new numbers are piled on to old numbers, our souls become corpses, become numbers, are manipulated, and finally disappear from the page of the times with the appearance of new numbers. Indeed, we are worried about our lives”. However, according to officials from the Ministry of Science, the next semester, beginning in January 2021, will also be virtual. The government does not want to unlock the universities.

During this pandemic, some political prisoners with health conditions were granted a long-term leave by order of the head of the judiciary. This leave did not include many political prisoners. A case in point was Mohammad Habibi, the head of the Iranian Teachers’ Union, who played an effective role in the teachers’ struggle over the past few years and was one of the main organizers of several coordinated teachers’ sit-ins across the country. He was not only refused the special coronavirus leave, but also was transferred from Evin to the infamous Fashafoyeh prison, whose sanitary situation is far worse than the Evin prison. He was finally released after two-and-a-half years in prison when government security forces continued to persecute teachers’ union activists during school closures, and were especially preoccupied with prosecuting teachers who might be affiliated with a semi-secret “Justice-seeking Teachers” organization. This organization, despite being small and secretive, has been able to influence teachers’ union struggles in recent years, including the fight against the monetization of education, making it one of the main themes of teachers’ union struggles. Precisely because of its class-based outlook, most of the connections between the teachers’ union, the militant students and the labour movement were formed through the activities of this organization.

Although Iranian schools have begun their school year, the teachers’ union struggle has also temporarily subsided. This is mainly due to the danger of the virus to their lives, inefficiency of virtual applications designed for online teaching and learning, as well as the effective repression of militant teachers. In this way, the coronavirus and the Islamic Republic have strengthened each other and provided suitable conditions for each other to continue to exist. The Islamic Republic has strongly contributed to the spread of the virus, and the virus has consolidated the position of the Islamic Republic, enabling it to pursue and implement a variety of repressive austerity and security policies under the pretext of containing the pandemic.

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