Iran using pandemic to ‘further geopolitical objectives, exert domestic control’: Report

LONDON: Despite being the “epicentre” of COVID-19 infections in the Middle East and North Africa, the Iranian regime “has repeatedly utilised the pandemic to further geopolitical objectives and exert domestic control,” according to a new report by London-based political risk advisory firm Sibylline.

The report said Iranian cases accounts for 40 percent of the region’s 15 million cases, and with an official death toll of 132,000, the country also dominates the region’s 250,000 fatalities.

Despite the toll that the virus has taken on Iran, it lags behind other regional states — such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE — in vaccination rates. 

Tehran’s response to the virus has contributed to the sky-high toll it has taken on the Iranian people, the report said.

“Mismanagement and false information have been symbolic of the country’s strategic response to the health crisis, with skewed medical advice and inconsistent figures severely underestimating the true epidemiological landscape of the country,” it added.

“Furthermore, Iran’s hard lined and ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi has exploited the health crisis to bolster anti-Western sentiments, spread conspiracy theories and state-sponsored media campaigns.”

Throughout the pandemic, Iran has been rocked by protests in many regions and the capital. In response, Tehran has enhanced domestic repression and cracked down on platforms used to organize protests or spread messages that counter regime narratives.

It “blocked Signal, a messaging app which gained popularity following concerns surrounding the state surveillance of WhatsApp, on 25 January 2021,” said the report.

Rhiannon Phillips, associate analyst for MENA at Sibylline, told Arab News: “Whilst the rest of the Middle Eastern region, and world, are increasingly adopting a strategy which promotes gradually easing measures and ‘learning how to live with COVID-19,’ the Iranian government will almost certainly seek to maintain repressive domestic measures, despite the trajectory of infection rate.”

This trajectory, she added, can be attributed to the country’s “anti-Western ideology.” This is exemplified “by their refusal to import Western vaccines until urged during their fifth wave of the pandemic in late 2021,” she said.

There is little hope that Tehran will change its trajectory to address the crisis, she added. Instead, “the Iranian population will continue to suffer under worsening socio-economic conditions amid US sanctions and the ongoing health crisis.

“Such conditions will inevitably drive an increase in protest activity which are met with heavy state repression.”