While this might seem like an unexpected turn of events, Iranian clerics using a pandemic to advance their worldly goals is actually not unprecedented in Iran’s modern history. And this past indicates that Khamenei’s militarization of the country’s coronavirus efforts, which has already worsened the contagion in Iran, has the potential to erode his standing in the long run.
When Khamenei likened the novel coronavirus to a “modern cholera” on April 8, he was probably unaware that he partly owed his position of power to the 1889-1893 outbreaks of pandemic cholera in the country. Religious leaders during that period exploited the government’s shortfalls against cholera to achieve their ideological goals, establishing the foundations of Shiite political militancy that led to Iran’s contemporary system of clerical rule.
Much like Khamenei has accused the United States of causing the current pandemic, his 19th century counterparts blamed cholera on divine retribution for Iranian commerce with faithless Westerners.
Fear of the disease helped the clerics mobilize the population against Western interests in Iran through boycotts, protests and mass violence. The Najafi brothers, who were powerful Shiite jurists and business executives in the city of Isfahan, prohibited their followers from trading or even coming into physical contact with “nonbelievers” in the wake of the cholera outbreaks. Their blistering sermons led to a violent rampage against the city’s minority business owners, who often acted as European commercial agents.
Other clerics followed suit, calling on Iranians to atone with God by boycotting Western products, discarding clothing made of European textiles and absconding from their contracts with non-Muslims. This culminated in large nationwide demonstrations against an agreement ratified by Iran’s monarch, Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar, which had granted the British exclusive control over the growth, sale and export of Iranian tobacco.
In the short term, the demonstrations allowed Iranian clerics to extract political concessions from the government and secure a momentary respite from the financial decline they had experienced as a result of the growing Western influence in Iran’s economy. A fatwa against smoking issued by Grand Ayatollah Hassan Shirazi forced Tehran to cancel the agreement with the British in 1892.
This was widely seen as a prelude to the Shiite clerical militancy that gave rise to the Islamic Republic today. Provincial governors and reformist administrators who were perceived to be hostile to the religious strata were dismissed, and this push set a precedent for a cleric-led popular revolt that challenged the monarchy — a lesson that would resonate almost a century later as Iranians rose up in 1979.
Yet, in the interim, the clerical push had serious negative consequences for Iran — and clerical power in the country. Law and order was never fully reestablished in the provinces. The financial ramifications forced the Iranian government to seek its first foreign loans, opening the floodgates of borrowing and dependence on foreign debts. This led to the assassination of Nasir al-Din Shah, ushering in an almost decade-long period of instability and revolution.
It also held back necessary investments in the country’s sanitary infrastructure, which extended its vulnerability to cholera and other pandemic diseases. The resulting frequent outbreaks in turn eroded the prestige of clerics in the early 20th century, particularly in matters of science and health. Large numbers of Iranians rejected the religious beliefs that associated epidemics with divine punishment, particularly in the face of the West’s successful sanitary interventions against pandemic cholera at the time.
This growing view of the religious strata as self-serving helped give rise to the secularizing movement that dominated the country’s politics for much of the 20th century. This secular push, in turn, was what finally turned the tide against pandemic cholera by establishing public trust, depoliticizing public health and creating a constructive biomedical relationship with the West.
In 1965, when Iran faced a new and virulent strain of pandemic cholera, the Iranian government responded effectively. It rapidly mobilized its public health workforce to quarantine affected areas, including religious establishments, and close its borders to countries that risked reintroducing the disease, limiting the outbreak to its eastern provinces. Iran’s ministry of public health conveyed the bacteriological profile of the outbreak to the World Health Organization (WHO), which immediately sent an expert to help establish a central reference laboratory in Tehran to test and identify new cases as they emerged.
Infected individuals and groups at high risk of acquiring the disease, such as Shiite pilgrims, were treated with a powerful broad-range antibiotic supplied by the United States. The French Pasteur Institute, which had established a campus in Iran in the 1920s and pioneered vaccine production in the country, helped Tehran rapidly develop a new vaccine against the El Tor cholera strain; this new vaccine was two times more potent than its American counterpart.
The subsequent compulsory national vaccination campaign, which did not spare high officials or members of the royal family, smothered the outbreak within a matter of months.
Yet today, instead of following this blueprint, the Iranian government has prioritized politics and narrow economic interests over public health, acting more like the clerics in the late 19th century. Iran’s leadership initially minimized the contagion’s risks and severity to avoid jeopardizing voter turnout during the country’s parliamentary elections, and Khamenei’s surrogates refused to restrict access to high-traffic religious shrines.
Khamenei has used this failure of leadership (in which he played a role) to extend his authority, which was already immense. According to Iran’s constitution, the supreme leader has a lifetime appointment as the highest political and religious power in the land, controlling the armed forces and the security apparatus, and sitting above the president, who serves a four-year term, and the Majlis, having the ability to quash policies not in line with the ideological goals of the theocracy.
By announcing that the virus was a biogenetic weapon produced by Washington, Khamenei could declare a state of emergency and place the military, answerable only to him, in control of Iran’s coronavirus fight. While Khamenei maintained that the substantial manpower and biomedical capabilities of the Iranian armed forces would carry through a more effective prevention effort, the military also received a second charge: implementing a repressive political agenda to clamp down on protests and arrest people critical of the regime’s response, propaganda and religious indoctrination.
But this ongoing power struggle between civilian and military authorities over politics has deprived Iran of a cohesive coronavirus policy. Despite official statements to the contrary, Iran remains one of the worst-affected countries in the world, and the peak of the outbreak is still weeks if not months away, based on projections and statements by some Iranian officials.
Contact tracing, a key element of any national infection control policy, depends upon public trust, something that will continue to erode with the Iranian military commingling its public health and security missions. Combating the coronavirus also requires rapidly obtaining testing supplies, antimicrobial treatment and vaccination prophylaxis as they are developed.
This is the exact opposite course of what is happening today. The current practices threaten to prolong the suffering of the Iranian people. If that happens, it risks worsening the prestige of the religious strata in the country — which is just what happened in the late 19th century.