Concealing the truth
The clerical regime cannot be relied on to provide accurate information, writes Yassamine Mather - either about Iran’s elections or the coronavirus.
Usually, when dictatorships face a crisis, they drop any pretence of ‘democracy’. Thus the decision of the Council of Guardians to ban the majority of ‘reformist’ MPs, as well as those conservative delegates and candidates who had dared to criticise the supreme leader (be it on rare occasions), from the February 21 elections. In total some 7,000 candidates were barred.
This marks the end of any notion that Iran’s Islamic Republic is different from dictatorships led by a single ruler. It also marks the end of the era of inter-Islamic competition between ‘reformists’ and ‘conservatives’ - a period that goes back to the election of the first ‘reformist’ president, ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, in August 1997. It has echoes of 1975, when the shah forcibly merged the only two legal political parties in Iran - Hezb-e Mardom and the ruling New Iran Party - into the Resurgence Party (Hezb-e Rastakhiz). The shah himself referred to them as the ‘Yes Party’ and the ‘Of Course Party’!
It was no surprise when last Friday’s turnout was very low. The government claims that 42% of Iranians eligible to vote did so, but supreme leader Ali Khamenei put the blame for that on the foreign media for all their negative propaganda about ‘disease and viruses’ - a reference to the rumours about the spread of coronavirus in the country in the two weeks before the election (I will return to this question later). However, even the figure of 42% is disputed by many inside the country. For instance, the official turnout in Tehran, where conservatives loyal to Khamenei won all 30 seats, is given as just 25.4%.
Among those elected is the former Revolutionary Guards commander, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who came top of the list in the capital. A controversial figure who failed to win the presidency on a number of occasions, Qalibaf was accused by the current president, Hassan Rouhani, of using “dirty money” in his election campaign in 2005. Iranian reformists have also accused Qalibaf of making personal gains from the sale of city properties to insiders at one 10th of their real price.
There are also accusations that he was involved in fuel smuggling in Baluchistan in south-east Iran in the early 2000s, at a time when he was Iran’s police chief. According to Morteza Alviri, a member of Tehran city council, in recent months the Iranian judiciary has been investigating 12 corruption cases relating to the council, all dating back to Qalibaf’s time as Tehran’s mayor. However, as a conservative supporter of Khamenei, he is now presenting himself as an ideal candidate for the next presidential elections, to be held in 2021.
In other seats throughout the country, conservatives made major gains and the Iranian parliament is likely to have some differences with the current president, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif.
There is much speculation over why the supreme leader decided to go for a completely conservative parliament. Some argue that, following nationwide demonstrations after general Qasem Soleimani’s assassination on January 3, he came to the conclusion that he no longer needs to tolerate the ‘reformists’ - at a time of crisis a parliament that is fully in line with his wishes is necessary.
But I doubt this was an important factor. It is clear that the Iranian regime now believes Donald Trump is likely to be in power for another five years and that he will continue to exercise maximum pressure - be it in the form of sanctions, support for ‘regime change’ groups or the occasional threat of military action. Under such circumstances, the supreme leader and his allies believe a military-type government will be in a better position to confront external threats. Despite regular rumours, Rouhani is not resigning yet. However, it is clear that neither he nor his foreign minister will be able to raise the issue of negotiations with the European Union or the United States with a parliament dominated by conservatives.
Of course, we should remember that the conservative grouping has its own divisions and, now that the ‘reformists’ are no longer a force to be reckoned with, we will hear more of the differences within their own ranks. Some conservatives have criticised Khamenei for his public declarations against the nuclear bomb, for example. Although they do not openly challenge the supreme leader, they are of the opinion that Iran should have developed a nuclear bomb as a deterrent against possible US attacks.
Before the elections there were, as I have said, widespread rumours that a number of Iranians had been taken ill with the coronavirus and that the government was deliberately concealing the extent of the problem to avoid an even lower turnout. In fact the interior minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, stated that there had been only two deaths as a result of the virus (in the religious city of Qom) just two days before the elections.
Since then we know that at least 19 people have died across the country and many more have been infected. On February 25 it became clear that the deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, who only a day earlier had been reassuring citizens that everything was under control, had himself contracted the virus. The mayor of one of Tehran’s districts, as well as a member of parliament (Islamic Majles), was also diagnosed with the disease. The countries around Iran have closed their borders, while pilgrimage to the holy Shia cities of Qom and Mashhad has been suspended. Schools and universities in some parts of the country have been closed.
Even if we accept the official figures - and most Iranians do not - more people have died in Iran from the virus than anywhere else outside China. Yet it is clear that so far very few precautionary measures have been taken. One official appearing on national television mocked the idea of setting up quarantines, claiming it was an old-fashioned method belonging to the World War I era!
Of course, as always, Iranian leaders are blaming external “enemies”. On February 25 Rouhani said they were planning to shut down Iran by creating fears about the virus. According to the president, “This is a conspiracy by our enemies.”
For the growing opponents of the regime the lack of reliable information about coronavirus is very pertinent. For instance, there is still no official information about the number of people who died in the anti-government protest of November 2019, and only a few weeks later the government tried to conceal the fact that the Ukrainian civilian plane that crashed on January 8 had been shot down by missiles deployed by the Revolutionary Guards. It is hardly surprising that most Iranians do not trust the country’s rulers to provide correct information about the virus. As one blogger put it, we live in an “empire of lies and deceit”.
Of course, the situation could become far worse and it is not just a question of the government attempting to hide the truth. There is a real shortage of medicine - a direct and serious consequence of US sanctions.