Iran’s Coronavirus Fight Collides With U.S. Sanctions
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Iran was among the earliest countries to suffer a major Covid-19 outbreak, and now is one of the first to suffer a resurgence. It drew scrutiny for scenes of pilgrims licking holy shrines, questionable death figures and a belated government response that saw a slew of top officials contract the disease. As the virus spread, though, governments elsewhere also proved slow to grasp the threat and other leaders fell ill or were exposed to the virus. Yet the Islamic Republic remains unique in one way: It’s dealing with the pandemic while under some of the most damaging sanctions in history, and is trying to leverage the crisis to get them lifted.
1. Why was Iran’s outbreak so dramatic?
It’s now clear that by the time the government made public Iran’s first virus deaths in Qom on Feb. 19, the disease had been filling hospital beds for weeks. The government hesitated to quarantine the city, home to the nation’s largest theological seminary, describing such a step as “medieval.” It was also slow to halt flights from China, its main economic and geopolitical partner, and to close holy sites such as Qom’s shrine of Fatima Masumeh, from which Shiite pilgrims carried the virus across the Middle East. After enacting movement restrictions, it was quick to allow people to return to work, in April, which may have contributed to the rebound in infections. By June Iran was reporting record daily numbers of new cases.
2. What else went wrong?
The pandemic struck after a series of missteps had already shaken confidence in the government and its security pillar, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In November, as U.S. sanctions reduced Iranian oil revenues to a trickle, the government slashed fuel subsidies, prompting protests that it suppressed at the cost, according to Amnesty International, of at least 304 lives. In January, the U.S. killed Iran’s most powerful military general, Qassem Soleimani, in a targeted drone strike in Iraq. The surge of national unity that followed was cut short when authorities initially sought to cover up the IRGC’s mistaken shooting-down of a civilian airliner on Jan. 8. With trust in government at an all-time low, millions boycotted parliamentary elections in February, and ignored directives not to travel during the Persian New Year, in late March.
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