Covid-19 and the Curious Case of Iran: Will it lead to Gulf’s Version of Love in the Time of Corona?

 By Dr. Manjari Singh
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What started off as pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan city of China – the novel corona virus– has become a global pandemic as recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 11 March 2020.[1] While the entire world seems to be caught off guard by the new virus and is fighting against it with all their national resources[2] available, Iran’s case is curious![3]

First, the novel virus calls for social distancing and self-isolations, however, economically, politically, socially, and to many extent diplomatically isolated and sanctioned Iran has seen a surge of Covid-19 cases. Second, there is a visible dearth of resources to combat the situation in the country due to the sanctions. Third, Iran not only became the epicentre of the virus in the region but is also regarded as the “super spreader”[4]  in the entire Middle East because of its nonchalant attitude towards the pandemic until late.[5] Four, the non-seriousness of the regime is visible as around as 8 per cent of the country’s Members of Parliament including the Deputy Minister of Health, Dr. Irar Harirchi, are tested positive. As many as 12 notable figures, prominent being Seyyed Mohammad Mirmohammadi, Senior Advisor to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have succumbed to the virus.[6]

The beginning of year 2020 turned out to be a bad one for Iran as the country lost its coveted General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Quds Forces, on 3 January 2020, during an American airstrike. If that was not enough, global pandemic new corona virus hit the country in a devastating manner claiming many lives! As of 31 March (by 16:03 hrs)[7], with 44,605 confirmed cases, Iran stands at seventh position (after the US, Italy, Spain, China, Germany and France in that order) in the list of countries worst hit by corona virus.[8] When it comes to number of lives claimed, the Islamic Republic stands at fifth position with 2,898 reported deaths so far after Italy, Spain, China, and the US.[9] Hence, even though when compared globally the number of cases in Iran does not seem alarming but death rates in the country  owing to the novel virus is something that demands global attention.

Qom province became the epicentre of the disease when it was reported that an Iranian merchant who had a recent travel history from Wuhan was diagnosed with the virus  on 19 February and had subsequently infected one more person. Since then, the numbers have been escalating in the country. On an average, daily increase in number of cases range from 2 to 6,500 since 19 February. For instance, on 30 March, the confirmed cases stood at 38,309 with 2,757 deaths, however, in a matter of one day it jumped by 6,296 more infected people with 141 additional deaths. The previous day 240[10] deaths were reported.

Notwithstanding the merchant’s travel history to Wuhan, there are many layers to the issue! Amongst many such as, insufficient testing capacity, refusal to cordon off cities and religious sites until Nowroz (Iranian New Year which was celebrated on 20 March this year), congregations to celebrate New Year, lack of seriousness and propaganda machinery blaming its Arab neighbours for spreading rumours and so on and so forth; there are few prime reasons which cannot be ignored. Therefore, while the regime’s “pride, paranoia, secrecy and chaos”[11] are the visible reasons for the current rate of outbreak, there are many underlining reasons to it.

For instance, like elsewhere, until very late Iran did not take the spread of the virus seriously, however, the reasons were different. Initially, for other nations, lockdowns due to the novel virus was a health crisis, for sanctioned Iran, it meant both economic and health crisis; the former took precedence until late! With dearth of trade and economic partners, China remained one of the few reliable sources for Iran and it was this concern and fear of losing out on China that became the main reason for the Islamic Republic to do what it did initially.[12] This means Iran’s continued strategic partnership with China is one of the main reasons for the sudden outbreak and spread of Covid-19.[13] For instance, not only were the number of cases and the outbreak kept a secret off late but despite travel advisories being announced on 31 January[14], few of Iranian flights such as the infamous Mahan Air, a private and terrorist linked airway, flew until early March.[15]

Moreover, it was reported that Qoms is the centre for many Chinese backed-projects functioning in the country and as is the case with Chinese projects, they employ more of their own people than foreigners. This meant that the city was not quarantined and proper precautionary measures were not undertaken even when many Chinese employees in Qoms had a travel history of visiting their home country during the outbreak.[16] It was also brought to light that many high level and clandestine meetings with the Chinese was carried out until early March and that explains the increasing percentage of MPs being infected, some of whom have succumbed to it.[17]

While Iran’s internal dynamics with regard to the global pandemic is noteworthy, its role in spreading the virus to other parts of the region cannot be ruled out! While Iran’s friends and aides in the region got exposed because of the immediate spread of virus through Iranian individuals travelling to these countries, especially in the Levant, namely, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, Turkey plus Yemen and Qatar.[18] Others such as the UAE, Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia also witnessed positive cases of Covid-19 linked to Iran directly or indirectly. The immediate response of the countries in the region and internationally, especially the US, was to issue travel advisories against Iran; has this response helped in managing the situation in Iran? No, in fact lack of positive and immediate response at the international front has only aggravated the crisis in the Persian state.

While few Arab countries in the Middle East, regardless of their equations and relations with Iran, such as Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE sent aid packages to the Shia state.[19] The UAE went a step further by facilitating flights carrying a team of WHO experts to the Islamic Republic.[20] However, does this response from the Arab countries mean that there is an Arab-Persian bonhomie-in-making? While, in Realpolitik, there are no permanent enemies or friends, however, the steps taken by the Arab states is to be seen through the lens of humanitarian concerns and securing some brownie points at the international stage also cannot be ruled out! With Saudi Arabia leading the Arab coalition, the likelihood of such bonhomie is still a farfetched idea.

The international response to Iran’s crisis has rather been limited and laidback and this has also been the reason for Iran’s soaring cases of Corona virus. The help from global community has been restricted to  provision of aid packages.[21] It is noteworthy that even though India airlifted its 890 nationals on 10 March[22], it is yet to send aid  to Iran as requested by the Iranian President[23], amidst crisis at its own doorstep. Certainly, domestic requirements have taken priority and given the population density, complexities and dynamics; it should too. The sanctions imposed by the US have yet not been lifted despite appeals from the Iranian President and that has further aggravated the situation in the country.[24] In that regard, the UN General Secretary, Antonio Gueterres’s call for “global ceasefire” on 23 March not only came late but does not seem to include Iran’s case![25] Therefore, notwithstanding Iran’s non-transparency and belligerent attitude with regard to the virus, international agencies lack of response cannot be ignored.

Therefore, with the global pandemic affecting almost all the nations, limited supplies, continued clandestine strategic partnership with China, lack of immediate response to the situation, nonchalant attitude etc are the domestic and prime reasons for the increasing number of cases of new virus in the country.    Limited number of friends regionally and internationally and limited international response mechanisms are the additional causes for proliferation of Coronavirus in Iran.  There is a likelihood that Iran will have to cope up with the crisis situation on its own for some time. Iranian Corona crisis has failed to move the American President Donald Trump to lift sanctions, however, global pressure that has started to build, might result in some relaxation. While aid packages and assistances have been pouring in from the Arab neighbours, Gulf’s love in the time of Corona is an unlikely scenario!

[1] WHO (2020), “WHO Director General’s Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing on Covid-19- 11 March 2020”, Available at: https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[2] National resources refer to economic, social and political resources available to a particular country.

[3]Author’s interview to the Epoch Times; Please refer to: Venus Upadhyay (2020), “Countries with Major Coronavirus Outbreak Clusters Delayed Response Due to Strategic Ties with China: Experts”, The Epoch Times, 16 March, Available at: https://www.theepochtimes.com/countries-with-major-coronavirus-outbreak-clusters-delayed-response-due-to-strategic-ties-with-china-experts_3268081.html, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[4] The term is used metaphorically here and draws comparison with a super spreader individual who is more likely to infect others compared to a typical infected person.

[5] Cinzia Bianco et al (2020), “Infected: The Impact of the Corona Virus in the Middle East and North Africa”, European Council of Foreign Relations, 19 March, Available at: https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_infected_the_impact_of_the_coronavirus_on_the_middle_east_and_no, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[6] Farnaz Fassihi and David D. Kirkpatrick (2020), “Iran’s Coronavirus Response: Pride, Paranoia, Secrecy, Chaos”, The New York Times, 9 March, Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/03/world/middleeast/coronavirus-iran.html, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[7] It is to be noted that Corona Virus Centre of the John Hopkins University and Medicine has been regarded as the most efficient and reliable tracker for the novel coronavirus spread. It uses data available from WHO, CDC, ECDC, NHC, DXY, 1point3acres, worldometers.info, BNO, State and National Governments Health Departments and local media reports.

[8] Corona Virus Resource Centre (2020), “Corona Virus Covid-19 Global Cases”, Centre for Systems Sciences and Engineering (CSSE), John Hopkins University and Medicine, Available at: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html, Accessed on 29-30 March 2020.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Islamic Republic News Agency reported that as of 30 March there have been 2,640 deaths and in the last 24hrs, 123 more people lost their lives whereas John Hopkins University provides a slightly higher number with 2,757 total deaths and 240 in the last 24hrs. For more details, see: Islamic Republic News Agency (2020), “Official: 12,391 COVID19-Infected Patients Recovered in Iran”, 29 March, Available at: https://en.irna.ir/news/83731895/Official-12-391-COVID19-infected-patients-recovered-in-Iran, Accessed on 30 March 2020; Corona Virus Resource Centre (2020), “Corona Virus Covid-19 Global Cases”, Centre for Systems Sciences and Engineering (CSSE), John Hopkins University and Medicine, Available at: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html, Accessed on 30 March 2020.

[11] Adapted the phrase from the New York Times Article titled as “Iran’s Coronavirus Response: Pride, Paranoia, Secrecy and Chaos”, Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/03/world/middleeast/coronavirus-iran.html, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[12] Author’s interview to the Epoch Times; Please refer to: Venus Upadhyay (2020), “Countries with Major Coronavirus Outbreak Clusters Delayed Response Due to Strategic Ties with China: Experts”, The Epoch Times, 16 March, Available at: https://www.theepochtimes.com/countries-with-major-coronavirus-outbreak-clusters-delayed-response-due-to-strategic-ties-with-china-experts_3268081.html, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[13] Benoit Foucan, Sune Engel Rasmussen and Jeremy Page (2020), “Strategic Partnership with China Lies at Root of Iran’s Coronavirus Outbreak”, The Wall Street Journal, 11 March, Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/irans-strategic-partnership-with-china-lies-at-root-of-its-coronavirus-outbreak-11583940683, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[14] Kevjn Lim (2020), “How an Iranian Airline Tied to Terrorism Likely Spread the Virus (and Lied about it)”, Foreign Policy, 30 March, Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/30/mahan-air-iranian-airline-spread-coronavirus-and-lied-about-it/, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[15] BBC (2020), “Corona Outbreak in Iran; Mahan Continues to Fly to China”, 4 March, Available at: https://www.bbc.com/persian/iran-features-51729682, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[16] James Philips and Nicole Robinson (2020), “Iranian Regime’s Reckless Disregard Made the Coronavirus Outbreak Worse”, The Heritage Foundation, 21 March, Available at: https://www.heritage.org/middle-east/commentary/iranian-regimes-reckless-disregard-made-the-coronavirus-outbreak-worse, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[17] Farnaz Fassihi and David D. Kirkpatrick (2020), “Iran’s Coronavirus Response: Pride, Paranoia, Secrecy, Chaos”, The New York Times, 9 March, Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/03/world/middleeast/coronavirus-iran.html, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[18] Liz Sly (2020), “Middle East is Already Wracked by War. Now it Must Confront the Coronavirus, too.”, The Washington Post, 17 March, Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/the-middle-east-is-already-wracked-by-war-now-it-must-confront-coronavirus-too/2020/03/16/a233d2b0-62f8-11ea-8a8e-5c5336b32760_story.html, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[19] BBC (2020), “Iran is Facing a Major Challenge in Controlling the Outbreak”, 27 March, Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-51642926, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[20] Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFAIC) (2020), “UAE Sends Flights to Iran to Support Fight Against Corona Virus”, Government of United Arab Emirates, 16 March, Available at: https://www.mofaic.gov.ae/en/mediahub/news/2020/3/16/16-03-2020-uae-iran, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[21] China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Germany, France, UK, Japan, Azerbaijan sent aid packages to Iran.

[22] Deccan Herald (2020), “Coronavirus: India Sends Military Aircraft to Iran to Evacuate its Nationals”, 10 March, Available at: https://www.deccanherald.com/national/north-and-central/coronavirus-india-sends-military-aircraft-to-iran-to-evacuate-its-nationals-812235.html, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[23] Geeta Mohan (2020), “Iran’s President Writes to PM Modi for Assistance to Fight Covid-19”, India Today, 15 March, Available at: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/iran-president-writes-to-pm-modi-for-assistance-to-fight-covid-19-1655680-2020-03-15, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[24] Ian Talley (2020), “US Steps Up Iran Sanctions Amid Coronavirus, as Tehran Charges Cruelty”, The Wall Street Journal, 19 March, Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-steps-up-iran-sanctions-amid-coronavirus-as-tehran-charges-cruelty-11584647223, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

[25] UN (2020), “Covid-19: UN Chief Calls for Global Ceasefire to Focus on ‘the true fight of our lives’”, UN News, 23 March, Available at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059972, Accessed on 31 March 2020.

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Dr. Manjari Singh is an Associate Fellow at Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and she obtained her doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for her thesis on Sustainable Development in Jordan: A Study of Social, Economic and Environmental Dimensions. Dr. Singh is a Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) Fellow and is specializes in sustainable development and the Middle East. Her research papers have appeared in international journals such as Contemporary Review of the Middle East, Mediterranean Quarterly, and Migration and Development. She has co-authored Persian Gulf 2018: India’s Relations with the Region (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan) and has co-edited Islamic Movements in the Middle East: Ideologies, Practices and Political Participation (New Delhi: Knowledge World) and Challenges to National Security: Young Scholars Perspective (New Delhi: Pentagon Press)She also serves as Assistant Editor of Contemporary Review of the Middle East (Sage Publications) and Managing Editor of CLAWS Journal (KW Publishers).