Where Is Iran’s Supreme Leader?

A worker in a protective suit sprays a disinfectant


Last week, I proposed that Iran’s coronavirus problem is much greater than commonly acknowledged, and that the true number of cases is perhaps hundreds of times greater than the official number. More signs of uncontrolled infection have emerged, and I fear I was optimistic. On Wednesday, Bahrain evacuated 165 of its citizens from Iran; 77 of them tested positive for the coronavirus. The Washington Post reported that satellite photographs showed a great furrow dug into a cemetery in Qom, reportedly to bury huge numbers of COVID-19 victims who had died already in that city. Other areas of Iran complained that they had run out of cemetery space, and that their numbers (then in the hundreds) were so great that they swamped the official national total, which even a week later is a mere 853. In Islam, bodies must be buried promptly and, in general, alone. You cannot bury two people together unless they are close family. One Iranian reported to me that the deaths were coming so fast that the survivors were requesting special dispensation to break this rule.

The economist Tyler Cowen asks, impishly, whether we should in fact be relieved, because apparently even when a society faces unrelenting misery—accelerated by the policies of its government—it doesn’t necessarily break down. Iran hasn’t turned into a criminal wasteland, with gangs in tricked-out, armored Paykans looting toilet paper and ventilators. In fact, it looks like Iranians have, like some Chinese before them, spawned informal systems of order, with roadblocks going up to prevent people from Tehran from fleeing to the countryside and bringing the disease with them. These efforts at containment have failed, but they were not forms of disorder, and most evidence suggests that when the plague abates, Iranians will have many things to mourn, but the irreversible disintegration of their society will not be among them.

The government is another matter. Many Iranians would celebrate its passing, and even its supporters have been watching for signs that the coronavirus will catalyze changes that should have come long ago, but that its authoritarian structure makes nearly impossible. The previous change of leadership came in 1989, as a result not of a modern political process but of biology: Ruhollah Khomeini, 86, died, and his deputy, Ali Khamenei, then 49, took over and has ruled ever since. He is now almost 81.

Given how many people are dying, it would be grotesque to think of COVID-19 as a lucky break for fans of regime change. But the news of ailing senior leaders keeps coming, and at some point the mullahs’ deep bench of gerontocrats will be depleted. Today, Ayatollah Hashem Bathaei-Golpaygani, a member of Khamenei’s Council of Experts, died of COVID-19 in Qom. Last week, former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati announced that he had contracted the coronavirus. He is 74 years old, still cunning, and the chief adviser to Khamenei, to whom he speaks regularly and in person. If Velayati dies of the coronavirus, he will be the most important regime figure to die since Qassem Soleimani.

Of course, the center of all speculation is the supreme leader himself. Khamenei doesn’t appear in public often, even in the best of times, and you’d have to be fairly lucky to spot him—except on a few occasions where his appearance is so customary that an absence would make everyone, both allies and enemies, wonder if the coronavirus has felled him too.

As it happens, one such occasion is this week: Persian New Year, or Nowruz. This pre-Islamic holiday marks the vernal equinox, and this year it falls smack in the middle of coronavirus season. Last year, Khamenei stood at the largest Islamic pilgrimage site in Iran, the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, and delivered a long, almost Fidel Castro–like speech detailing policies and plans. This year, the Islamic Republic canceled the speech 10 days in advance, “due to health recommendations to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.”

As a matter of public health, the decision to call off a huge public gathering is wise and sane. But rumors do not die so easily. Couldn’t Khamenei just give his speech from a studio? Is this not the ideal opportunity, the first day of spring, to discuss the process of renewal that Iran will have to undertake to recommit itself to the ideals of its revolution? For the past two weeks, speculation has been rampant. Surely, say the rumors, Khamenei has the virus—or if he doesn’t, it’s because he has entered Howard Hughes–like seclusion, behind a flaming moat of Purell. These rumors aside, the perception of distance has made Khamenei, already a distant figure without charisma or warmth, seem superannuated and out of touch. If he does not show up, looking healthy, for his camera appearance this year, many will assume that he is in a febrile delirium somewhere.

In any other year, such an absence could, all by itself, trigger speculation about a stroke or even a coup d’état. (Imagine if the U.S. president failed to show up for a State of the Union address, or even—without a word of explanation—the pardoning of Thanksgiving turkeys.) What might save Khamenei is the simple fact that the whole Iranian nation is suffering together, and it isn’t clear which institutions are healthy enough to rival his leadership, even in this diminished state. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers are dying of COVID-19, just as civilians are. And ordinary people have sheltered in place, just as Europeans and Americans are (slowly) beginning to.

If the pandemic has exposed or confirmed the incompetence and malignance of governments, at the same time it has crippled the forces for improvement. The U.S. government has failed to provide the COVID-19 tests that tell us how to prepare for the coming waves of infection. But what can we do, other than go to war against the virus with the White House we have, instead of the White House we want? In Iran, popular protests in the streets simply cannot happen as long as the manpower for those protests remains sequestered at home, and as long as morale is utterly depleted by the task of burying one’s loved ones. Regime change might have to wait. At least the pandemic will eventually end, and with its end, change is one more thing to look forward to.

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