Iran has been at the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic in Central and West Asia. By May 5th, the Iranian Health Commission had informed the World Health Organization (WHO) about 98647 cases and 6277 confirmed deaths in the country. The virus travelled from the religious city of Qom across the region through trading and pilgrimage routes, sketching a map which is closely knitted to the geopolitics of Iran’s regional power projection. For instance, Afghanistan’s Covid-19 outbreak could be traced to the large number of Afghan migrants and pilgrims who decided to return to their country following the news of the epidemic in Iran. In Lebanon and Iraq, pilgrims visiting the holy shrine of Fatemeh Masoumeh in Qom, contracted the virus and, unaware, brought it back to their respective country. Similarly, Iranian traders working across the Persian Gulf, with their Qatari and Emirati counterparts spread the virus to these countries.
The virus geography reveals of Iran’s close connection to the People Republic of China, ever closer – if not symbiotic – amidst the sanction regime imposed by US president Donald Trump. Competing reports – unconfirmed so far – suggest that the virus was brought to the city of Qom by either an Iranian trader travelling back and forth to Wuhan, or by a group of Chinese Muslim seminarists studying in one of Qom’s schools; or by Chinese construction workers on the development plans for the Iranian railways.
The mixture of economic and religious drives behind the spread of the virus highlights also some of the tensions in the governance of Covid-19. The epidemic has produced profound effects on state-society relations. The prospective of an uncontrollable health crisis, which could cause anything between thousands of deaths up to three and half million (in the worst-case scenario) put the Iranian state and public institutions face to face with a huge governance dilemma. This dilemma coupled with the dire economic circumstances in which the Iranian economy navigates, making the government’s means of management of the crisis very limited and all coming at enormous political and social costs. At the religious end, for the first time in centuries the Iranian government closed down all religious sites and shrines, causing an uproar from culturalist hardliners.
Covid-19 has represented a major test for Iran’s crisis management. Yet, the country has had a long and, given the tenacity and resilience of the Islamic Republic, rather successful history of crisis management. It is sufficient to take into account the multiple instances of crisis over the last four decades: the US hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq War, the post-reconstruction crisis, the “Axis of Evil” crisis, the 2009 election crisis, the nuclear negotiations crisis, and the 2018 and 2019 protests, and so on. The capacity to overcome challenges that put the political order at risk of structural destabilisation seems to be one of the most effective tools in the Islamic Republic’s governance arsenal.
One field in which crisis management has been especially strong is that of health, where it has often led to highly pragmatic interventions. When facing a crisis situation, the Iranian state is usually slow to respond: denial of the crisis is the rule in the initial stages. At the same time, the state does not hamper grassroots groups and non-state agents to prop up mobilization efforts ‘to manage’ – or at least contain – the crisis. Ultimately, once grassroots groups and civil society efforts have tested the scope and realities of crisis, the state intervenes in outlining a governance framework for managing crisis. This often leads to long-term policy initiatives that shape the relation between the state and citizens.
This framework – of denial, passivism, and grassroots management – helps analysing Iran’s management of the Covid-19 epidemic. In the initial stage of the epidemic – between late February and mid-March – the Iranian government did not undertake any major policy step to control contagion and/or to guide the public response to the crisis. Multiple and contrasting inputs came out from officials, sketching a picture which put at odds the president Hassan Rouhani’s lenient and laissez-faire approach aimed at saving the state finances from economic collapse, and the revolutionary guards (IRGC) against the government and demanding a full lockdown enforced by mobilising the armed forces.
While the inter-institutional confrontation escalated into mutual criticism and parallel policy interventions, the public response was driven by a diffused and granular mobilisation. Virtual debate on social media and the news outlets, grassroots organisations, charities, social workers and medical professionals worked strenuously to create a mobilisation web of intervention aimed at informing, safe-guarding, and reducing the risks of the viral outbreak. These networks of mobilisation are organised through local groups of citizens, in NGOs, charities and also mosques. They supply food and personal protective equipment to citizens in need. They also act as a safety net against extreme poverty for those workers which have been most affected by the economic impact of Covid-19, in particular informal workers who number in several hundred thousand.
This is not to say that the government itself has not been responsive. Following an initial stage of denial and passive effort, the government enforced a total lockdown which coincided with the New Year celebrations of Nowruz, from March 20 to early April. From April 18, the government initiated a strategy based on smart social distancing, where it required citizens to maintain safe physical distance in the public space, minimise social interaction beyond family members while offices and schools reorganised their modes of working (either going online or modifying their working hours). From May 3, it reopened some religious sites, while maintaining the strict hygienic protocols in the public space, with regular disinfection and check-points. Economic governance has had a systemic priority over religious life, something that is a counterintuitive rule in the history of the Islamic Republic.
This smart strategy differs from the approach adopted by other states severely affected by the Covid-19 epidemic. If compared to Italy, the Iranian government’s strategy resembles more the British and Swedish approach, with the burden of risk mitigation being put on individual citizens and households’ responsibility, while everyday economic activities keep on operating with tactical adjustments to the new public health circumstances. It is the antithesis of authoritarian, draconian governance.
This strategy – in my book I define it managing disorder rather than disposing order – enables the Iranian state to diffuse the task of governing turbulent phenomena, such as the pandemic. Through indirect means and via the mobilisation of grassroots and informal forces, the state manages the epidemic – we will see whether effectively or catastrophically – while safeguarding the politico-economic order.