By Arab News
By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh*
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) appears to be seizing the opportunity provided by the coronavirus pandemic to increase its power.
The IRGC is cognizant of the fact that the popularity of the ruling clerics has been significantly impacted in recent months, particularly due to its handling of the coronavirus crisis. When the virus first emerged in Iran, top clerics strongly opposed following the health authorities’ recommendations. Mohammad Saeedi, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative in Qom, argued that the enemy would not succeed in projecting the holy city as being unsafe.
Saeedi insisted on leaving the shrines in Qom open and encouraged people to visit them in order to be cured of the coronavirus. Iranians quickly witnessed how the clerics’ decisions made Qom the center of the coronavirus outbreak in the country and heightened the crisis. A manager of the Group of Experts of Social Factors Impacting Health at the Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran even admitted in February: “Almost all cases in the country have been caused by Qom. Therefore, our greatest mistake was that we did not control the source.”
Lawmakers have also criticized the clerics for mishandling the situation. Alireza Rahimi, a member of the Majlis (parliament) leadership, was quoted by state-run news agency ISNA as asking: “Why was the coronavirus outbreak in Qom overshadowed by the Majlis elections? Why was Qom not quarantined to prevent the spread of coronavirus across the country?”
People also witnessed how the clerics continued to refuse to follow the health authorities’ recommendations to quarantine Qom. One of the most important criticisms of the clerics came from Nahid Khodakarami, head of Tehran City Council’s Health Commission, who said on March 1: “Two weeks ago, I told Dr. Iraj Harirchi and even Dr. (Ali) Nobakht (the head of the parliamentary health committee) that Qom must be quarantined, but they did not listen. There must be restrictions placed on Qom. Now, the entire country has been infected. Even in a small city like Khansar, three people have tested positive for coronavirus. All three had gone there from Qom. Yesterday, three people traveled from Qom to Tehran and all of them died. If we had not given priority to the concerns of the clerics, we would have been in a much better situation.”
Qom is a center for training powerful Shiite religious figures from other countries, with thousands of seminaries established there. Among those studying in Qom at the time of the outbreak were hundreds of Chinese students.
The top clerics also refused to delay the Majlis elections in late February. Later, a video clip emerged showing the tragic situation in Qom’s mortuary. It was widely circulated among Iranians on social media. Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli admitted: “Some had recommended delaying the elections, and insisted on delaying elections in Qom. But I, as the official for the elections, refused to approve these recommendations.”
Meanwhile, the IRGC has been coy and has shrewdly attempted to increase its popularity by depicting itself as the country’s hero. After the coronavirus outbreak began, the IRGC started marginalizing Rouhani’s government and many of the clerics by infiltrating hospitals, overseeing health officials and introducing nationwide initiatives for supposedly fighting coronavirus.
For example, the IRGC this month unveiled a new Iranian-made device that is reportedly capable of instantly detecting the virus. The commander-in-chief of the IRGC, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, boasted: “The device is able to detect every coronavirus infection case within a 100-meter radius by creating a magnetic field and using a bipolar virus inside the device. When the device’s antenna is pointed at a specific location, it will detect the contaminated spot within five seconds. This device has been tested in various hospitals and has an 80 percent accuracy level.”
The IRGC also claimed that it has mobilized thousands of volunteers from its various affiliated organizations, including its paramilitary arm the Basij, to help the nation in fighting coronavirus.
Furthermore, IRGC officials announced they would take a 20 percent pay cut in order to assist the nation in battling the coronavirus pandemic. Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ramezan Sharif stated that all members of the IRGC have “announced readiness to allocate part of their wages to this benevolent act.”
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the Iranian people have put their mistrust of the IRGC aside. It is still viewed as being part of the regime and is also engaged in the repression of dissidents, suppression of the freedoms of speech, press and assembly, and it imprisons political opponents.
In the last four decades, the IRGC has evolved to be the backbone of the clerical establishment. It is controlling significant sections of Iran’s economic and ideological centers and the senior cadres of the IRGC dictate Tehran’s foreign policy and support for proxies. The IRGC is, therefore, likely using the coronavirus outbreak in Iran to advance its efforts to transition the regime from a theocracy to a military dictatorship.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh