Amid a Rising Pandemic Toll, Iran Flashes Riot Gear to Quell Unrest

Meanwhile, Tehran has Employed Cyber-Piracy to Hunt for a Cure

The Iranian leadership’s difficulties in coping with the coronavirus pandemic have grown increasingly stark, as internal documents indicate an outbreak substantially worse than the figures officially released to the public. Key decision-makers, including Ayatollah Khamene’i himself, appear paralyzed on the critical question of if and when to re-open religious shrines. At the same time, popular discontent appears to be rising, and authorities have shown little ingenuity in meeting the disquiet other than to brandish riot-control capacities. 
 
LACK OF DECISION AS LOSSES MOUNT
 
Iranian losses from the coronavirus continue to mount. While the official government tally puts the total number of infections at 100,000 and deaths at 6,500, a report by the research arm of the Iranian parliament found that the number of cases could be as much as eight to ten times higher, rendering the Iranian per capita infection rate among the highest in the world. As for deaths, the report states that Iran’s losses to COVID-19 could well reach 80 percent higher than the official estimate from the Health Ministry, which now stands at 6,700.
 
Such grim statistics appear to have frozen Tehran’s decision-making circles. At a recent meeting of Iran’s COVID-19 Control Task Force on May 10, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei confessed his inability to decide on the critical issue of whether or not to re-open normally crowded religious shrines: "I have absolutely no suggestion about reopening or not reopening of the shrines and will submit to the views of the experts in the task force and will do as they say." At the same time as he appeared to defer to Iran’s health experts, Khamenei nevertheless emphasized the importance of prayers during Ramadan: "People need to pray and appeal to the saints."
 
AS DISCONTENT RISES, IRANIAN OFFICIALS BRANDISH REPRESSIVE CAPACITIES
 
Underscoring its inability to effectively manage the crisis, Tehran has generated new unforced errors in public relations. In a recent incident, officials distributed food packages for the destitute around the palatial shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The harsh contrast between the widespread economic devastation inflicted by Tehran’s mismanagement of the pandemic and the ostentatious wealth lavished on leaders of the ruling class led to a spontaneous outpouring of criticism from Iranians online. In the words of one Iranian activis tand supporter of Mir Hossein Musavi, "Forty years after the revolution of Imam Khomeini, people were not supposed to be in need of rice, oil, and macaroni, which have been displayed at such an aristocratic place!" Another, exclaimed, "The existence of each family that is dependent on these [food] packages is a shame for everyone, particularly for [the Khomeini] family." 
 
Authorities have responded by highlighting their repressive capacities. In a recent interview with state media, Brigadier-General Hassan Karami, who since 2012 has commanded the anti-riot police, made a point of noting that "this year we are at the height of preparedness, from training to equipment and knowledge of the enemy threats in various areas." Indeed, as if in response to the menacing undertones of Karami’s address, former President Mohammad Khatami took to issuing an unusually grim prognosis of the direction of public opinion, warning that a "cycle of reciprocal violence between the people and the government" could occur.
 
Meanwhile, in a tacit admission that Iran is unlikely to pioneer a solution to the coronavirus pandemic from its own resources, Tehran has begun to wage a campaign of cyber-piracy aimed at American pharmaceutical entities. U.S. officials confirmed in an alert released this Wednesday that both China and Iran have been conducting a series of cyberattacks on American companies engaged in working to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. According to cybersecurity researchers, Tehran’s most recent targets include the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Inc., which has produced the antiviral drug Remdesivir which has shown promise in recent trials as a potential treatment.