The Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional proxies have navigated the coronavirus pandemic with a combination of denial, deflection, and determination. They first attempted to conceal the virus’s outbreak, then blamed their adversaries for spreading it, and eventually steeled themselves to continue the path of “resistance,” despite the economic hardship. The net effect is that the power of Iran and its regional proxies appears relatively undiminished, while the living conditions of the citizens under their care have further deteriorated.
The pandemic was an opportunity for Iran’s proxies, which style themselves as hybrid actors interested in the delivery of services to their constituents, to mount early public demonstrations of power and mobilize their public health resources. In time, however, the cross-sectarian and transnational nature of the pandemic meant that states, not militias, would have to take the lead in closing borders, conducting national testing, and leading public health and education strategies directed at all citizens, regardless of sect.
Years before the pandemic hit, Iran’s outsized influence in four Arab capitals—Baghdad, Beirut, Sanaa, and Damascus—was established largely as a result of the power vacuums created by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The embattled leaders of Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria are all either indebted to Iran for its support, reliant on Iran for their survival, fearful of ignoring Iranian demands, or a combination of all three. The economic crises caused by the pandemic have only accentuated this dependency.
The Pandemic’s Stark, Underreported Impact on Iran
The combination of the pandemic, U.S. sanctions, falling oil prices, mismanagement, and corruption have debilitated Iran’s economy in 2020 but triggered little introspection among Tehran’s ruling elite. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei initially alleged the coronavirus was a U.S. bioweapon, which provided him the pretext to appoint a commander from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, rather than a physician, to lead a newly formed Health Command Center. Indeed, despite hopes in Washington that the pandemic might hasten the Islamic Republic’s collapse, the virus has seemingly accelerated Iran’s transition from (elderly) clerical rule to (middle-aged) military rule.
Early on, the Shia shrine city of Qom was one of the initial epicenters of coronavirus outbreaks outside China, and in March 2020 it was estimated that 90 percent of all coronavirus cases in the Middle East at the time had originated in Iran. Many of these cases were thought to be either Shia pilgrims visiting Iran or Shia fighters training in the country.
As of early December, Iran officially had over 1 million coronavirus cases and ranked eighth in the world with more than 50,000 deaths. But leaked government data from July 2020 suggested that coronavirus deaths were nearly three times greater than those reported at the time. These leaks reflected the anger of Iranian health ministry officials toward the country’s security and intelligence forces, who have a history of suppressing unflattering news about Iran so as not to embolden Tehran’s adversaries. The Iranian government’s contradictory messaging was further on display when President Hassan Rouhani inexplicably claimed in July that 25 million Iranians may have been infected with the virus. That stark figure is one hundred times the official tally in December 2020, and it outstripped the number of reported cases at the time (about 270,000) by an even wider margin.
The Fallout for Iranian Proxies and Partners
In neighboring Iraq—which has many pilgrims and fighters who travel to Iran frequently—COVID-19 cases began to skyrocket in the summer. Like their patrons in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iraqi Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) sought to rehabilitate their tattered image—after overseeing violent crackdowns against peaceful protesters last year—by building temporary, mobile hospitals to treat coronavirus patients. Yet the economic and political grievances that triggered Iraq’s popular unrest—which included the burning of Iranian consulates—has worsened. Even senior Iraqi officials admit the country’s economy is in crisis and “riddled with corruption.”
Lebanese Hezbollah—Iran’s chief regional proxy—also helped violently quell popular protests and was accused of bringing the coronavirus into Lebanon from the early outbreak in Iran. Like the PMF in Iraq, Hezbollah deployed volunteers and doctors and created makeshift healthcare facilities in Lebanon. Critics accused them of performing theatrics more than offering genuine medical assistance.
Any popular goodwill Hezbollah generated beyond its Shia base likely evaporated after the massive August 2020 fire at an ammonium nitrate depot at the Beirut port triggered one of the largest explosions in human history. Though over 200 people were killed, thousands were injured, and huge swathes of the city were destroyed, Hezbollah—which operated freely in the port and has used ammonium nitrate in past operations—helped thwart an independent investigation. For years, Hezbollah’s lack of a formal role in the Lebanese government allowed the group to wield power without accountability. Given its active role in Lebanese politics today, however, one Lebanese observer assessed that Hezbollah “got power but they lost the country and the people.”
In war-torn Yemen—considered the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis by the UN—coronavirus cases are presumed to be high but impossible to quantify given the lack of testing and humanitarian access. The leadership of the Iran-backed Houthis, who control most of the country, contended the pandemic was an American “biological warfare” plot, accused Saudi Arabia of sending virus-stricken Yemenis back home to spread the virus, and warned its citizens not to wear “COVID-infected” face masks ostensibly airdropped by Saudi airplanes. Yet given Yemen’s graver challenges—including widespread famine and the return of more lethal diseases such as polio and cholera—the coronavirus is not the top crisis on the Yemeni government’s agenda.
As for Syria, even before the pandemic began, the country’s lengthy civil war had claimed between 400,000 and 600,000 lives and forced half the population to flee from their homes. The pandemic has reportedly been “out of control” in Syria, but cases remain significantly undercounted. The outbreak reportedly hit Iranian fighters and Iranian-supported units hardest, and among the casualties was a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander in Syria. While U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration believed the pandemic could weaken Iran’s presence and influence in Syria, so far these predictions have not borne out. The UN World Food Programme estimates that 9.3 million Syrians are unsure where their next meal is coming from, while the number of Syrians lining up for bread has visibly increased. Syrian refugees in neighboring countries have also been hit hard. Aid organizations have expressed concerns about Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s restrictions of humanitarian access and expropriation of international financial assistance.
While the coronavirus pandemic could have provided Tehran, its regional proxies, and Washington an opportunity to cooperate against a common foe, the hostility and mistrust of the Trump era has proved too wide for even a deadly pandemic to bridge. At the same time, economic hardship has made Tehran’s regional proxies more, not less, reliant on Iranian largesse. At some point, popular economic and political frustrations within Iran, and against Tehran’s regional proxies, will once again resurface. But history has shown such backlash is more likely to happen when people’s expectations have been raised and then dashed, rather than during times of financial destitution.