Argument

Iran Knows Who to Blame for the Virus: America and Israel

The regime’s ideological army is spinning conspiracy theories even as it helps spread the virus among Iran’s long-suffering people.

An Iranian woman walks past an anti-American mural on the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran on May 8, 2018.
An Iranian woman walks past an anti-American mural on the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran on May 8, 2018. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

If one is to believe the official numbers, Iran lags only China and Italy in the severity of its coronavirus outbreak, but Tehran continues to downplay the scale of the crisis. As of Wednesday, Iran has confirmed 17,361 cases and 1,135 deaths, but many sources suggest the actual totals could be much higher. In Qom, one of the centers of the outbreak, satellite photos appear to show mass graves being dug for virus victims. Several prominent members of the Iranian government, parliament, and clergy are either sick or already dead.

As if to follow the dictum never to waste a good crisis, the regime’s ideological army—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—has seized the pandemic as an opportunity to burnish its tarnished image by presenting itself and its Islamist ideology as the nation’s savior.
But whether out of callousness or outright cynicism, the IRGC’s propaganda activities aren’t only not helping, but have helped spread the virus among Iran’s population.

Since its founding as the Iranian regime’s ideological army in 1979, the IRGC has been the ruling clergy’s principal mechanism for enforcing its theocracy at home, and exporting its Shiite Islamist ideology abroad. The Guard’s constant presence in Iranian life plays a crucial role in sustaining the regime and its ideology across every sector in society, using a toxic mix of violence and propaganda.

In the past few months, however, Iran’s aging ayatollahs have been unnerved by a new wave of hostility against the IRGC, even among the regime’s traditional support base. The Guard has been blamed for the deaths of 1,500 Iranian civilians during anti-regime protests in November, and it was responsible for downing a Ukrainian passenger plane in January, killing all 176 people on board—an atrocity the regime only admitted to after several days of silence. Videos recently posted online show Iranians in cities such as Tehran and Isfahan chanting a new slogan that compares the IRGC to the Islamic State. The mood on Iranian streets suggests domestic support for the Guard has reached an all-time low.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Desperate to regain credibility, the ruthlessly opportunistic Guard has jumped on Iran’s coronavirus crisis in an attempt to resuscitate its appeal and ideology.

As news of coronavirus cases in Iran spread, the IRGC quickly developed a narrative for the disease. It portrayed the virus as a conspiracy orchestrated by the United States, in an attempt to rejuvenate the anti-Americanism that lies at the heart of the regime’s ideology. Hossein Salami, the commander of the Guard, has suggested the coronavirus may be an “American biological invasion,” leading some of the regime’s defenders to call for a retaliatory response. Indeed, a deeper look at IRGC-linked communications networks reveals a systematic propaganda campaign to seize the pandemic as an opportunity to vilify not only the United States, but also the regime’s other traditional ideological enemy, Israel, as well. The propaganda includes claims that the virus is a “Zionist biological terrorist attack,” in line with previous allegations that the so-called Zionist regime has conducted “12 bioterrorist attacks against the people of Iran.”

The conspiracy theories have been supported by the IRGC’s own “experts” on biotechnology and genetics. Ali Karami, a professor at the IRGC-run Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences, appeared on Iranian state television to describe coronavirus as a “biological ethnic weapon” specifically created by the “Americans and Zionist regime” to target Iranian DNACoronavirus has been described on state television as a “biological ethnic weapon” created by the “Americans and Zionist regime” to target Iranian DNA.—which, in Karami’s view, also explains the high coronavirus mortality rate in Iran. Karami, who also serves in the IRGC’s Basij militia, also claimed that the explanation for Iran and Italy both having a high number of coronavirus fatalities is that “the genetics of the Italian people are very similar to the Iranian people.” Conspiracy theories such as these have themselves spread among the leadership like a virus, with figures including President Hassan Rouhani referring to the pandemic as an enemy plot.

After more than 40 years, however, the regime’s reflexive anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric seems to have lost traction among the Iranian people, who by and large blame the regime for their domestic ills. That is why Iranians, at recent demonstrations, adopted another new slogan: “Our enemy is right here, they lie telling us it’s America.”

Besides trying to blame the United States and Israel for the virus, the IRGC’s propaganda machine has also sought to present the Guard as the solution to it. Just as the IRGC branded its fighters in Syria as “defenders of the holy Shiite shrines” instead of protectors of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the IRGC now refers to its members as “defenders of health,” with the aim of portraying the organization as the nation’s savior.

The Guard has even adapted old propaganda images and posters from the Iran-Iraq War to show IRGC fighters side-by-side with medical professionals to battle the disease, a transparent attempt to coopt public sympathy for poorly equipped doctors and nurses. Coronavirus is simply the new battleground against Iran’s enemies, according to one of these posters.

The most cynical aspect of the IRGC’s virus-related propaganda has been its blatant attempt to hide the regime’s incompetence at battling the epidemic behind religious rhetoric—by glorifying death from coronavirus as religious martyrdom. The glorification of martyrdom is at the heart of the Guard’s Islamist ideology (the Guards’ own internal training manuals teach recruits to actively welcome death), but has penetrated every level of the regime. In response to a recommendation by the Ministry of Health and Medical Education, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has proclaimed martyr status for doctors and nurses who die from coronavirus. Since martyrs’ families receive state benefits, this is also a way to ward off some of the anti-regime dissent that may arise from its mismanagement of the crisis.

The Ministry of Health and Medical Education’s incompetence and failure to respond adequately to the virus has created an opportunity for the IRGC to intervene. At a time when most countries are implementing quarantines, lockdowns, and social distancing, the IRGC has deployed 300,000 of its “defenders of health” to go door-to-door in coronavirus hotspots in a show of strength. The IRGC has also threatened doctors should they disclose details on the true scale of the pandemic in Iran in a bid to prevent any damage to the regime’s image.

The IRGC’s increasing command over Iran’s pandemic response has been bolstered by Khamenei’s appointment of Mohammad Bagheri, Guard commander and chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, as head of a “medical base” to fight coronavirus, rather than anyone from the health ministry or government. Reinforcing the Guards’ narrative that coronavirus was a foreign attack, Khamenei called the establishment of this unit a “biological defense exercise.”

Most Iranians aren’t buying the IRGC’s coronavirus propaganda. In fact, many blame the outbreak in their country on the Guard itself—because the IRGC-run airline, Mahan Air, continued to operate flights to China during the peak of the crisis.

As ever, it will be the Iranian people that will suffer most from the IRGC’s actions. Once again, the regime in Iran has prioritized its ideological and propaganda interests over the welfare of its people. Instead of treating this crisis as a domestic and global threat to public health, the regime has focused on the pandemic as an opportunity to rejuvenate its anti-American and Islamist ideology.

This has dire consequences even outside Iran. As the international community, including the World Health Organization, looks to engage with Iran as an epicenter of the pandemic and help slow the spread of the virus, the IRGC’s singular focus on propaganda and shoring up the regime will severely limit the ability to work with Tehran. The international community needs to recognize that this crisis has created an opportunity for the IRGC to promote its ideologically driven conspiracy theories. The real priority driving Tehran is sustaining the regime and its Islamist ideology—not the health and welfare of the Iranian people.

Kasra Aarabi is an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. He focuses on Iran, its regional role and foreign policy, and Shiite Islamist ideology. Twitter: @KasraAarabi

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