Two years into a deep recession triggered by the return of U.S. sanctions, Iran is facing further economic struggles as the Coronavirus promises to shrink the country’s trade and slow its production and services. The death of Soleimani and his close advisors, meanwhile, has left a power vacuum in Iran’s military that has weakened Iran’s momentum in Iraq and in its other spheres of influence, such as Lebanon and Syria.
When Iran first began to exhibit an outbreak of the virus in late January, the regime responded with denials of the pandemic’s scope and predictable accusations that the U.S. both created the virus and attempted to spread it further through medication and equipment. Iran continued to encourage large religious gatherings, continued flights to China, and diverted funds and medical supplies that could have been used to contain the virus. With accurate numbers hard to gauge because of the regime’s obfuscation, Iran to date has sustained at least 86,000 cases of Covid-19, more than China and more than any Middle Eastern country other than Turkey. A number of senior officials have tested positive for the virus and at least two members of parliament have died of it. To exacerbate matters, more than 300 Iranians have died after consuming methanol in response to a fake remedy that has spread across Iranian social media.
Soleimani, Iran’s second most powerful figure after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini, had used brutal violence to repress civic movements in Iraq and Lebanon that threatened Iran’s grip on their legislatures. He had also used his security machinery to consolidate a land corridor through Syria and steer the course of the war in that country.
Iran’s recent antagonistic naval maneuvers around U.S. warships demonstrate a desire to project strength in the wake of the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani and his core power structure. Eleven Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) speed boats with mounted machine guns harassed American ships in the Persian Gulf. The IRG also launched its first ever space launch as part of a program that could hasten the country’s ballistic missile development. But without the onerous sanctions the U.S. has placed on Iran, the regime would undoubtedly have poured tens of billions more dollars into military spending, as evidenced by the dramatic spike in their military budget in the years following the 2015 nuclear deal.
These crises have thrown into sharp relief some of Iran’s most habitual tendencies: seizing political opportunity rather than improving conditions for their own population; deferring to the religious establishment, including religious practices that ignore social distancing; and, invariably, propagating anti-Semitism. Iran’s health ministry this month sponsored a Coronavirus cartoon contest in which ghastly anti-Semitic illustrations figured prominently.
Meanwhile, the Iranian press has promoted reports claiming “Zionist” culpability for the virus. “Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of Coronavirus against Iran,” state-run Press TV asserted last month. Of course, this did not stop Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi from conceding that Iranians would be permitted to use a Coronavirus vaccine developed by Israel if “the treatment is unique and there is no substitute.”
Prior to the eruption of the virus, protests swept the country in the wake of the IRG downing of a Ukrainian airliner in January. The following month, parliamentary elections devolved into chaos after the hardline Guardian Council barred thousands of moderates from running. As the crises in Iran mount, the country’s economic, political, and health security may continue to founder. Given the uncertainty of Iran’s future and the threat the regime poses to Middle East stability and Israel’s existence, much hangs in the balance.