Is coronavirus Iran’s Chernobyl?


Really does suck to be you, Iran.

Member of Iranian civil defense team sprays disinfectant while sanitizing a truck, after the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran partially. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Walking alongside the graveyard of ambitious and expansionist empires, it is frequently overlooked that collapse often results from internal implosions and mismanagement, rather than from outside threats. The critical threshold of implosion begins when an authority spends more attention and resources on its external ambitions than its internal responsibilities.

Our most modern example of this is the fall of the Soviet Union. Marred by internal social unrest that perestroika reforms were unable to amend, immense military expenditure of 15 billion rubles in Afghanistan, and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, the 1980’s defined the decade in which the USSR passed the critical threshold. Former USSR secretary-general Mikhail Gorbachev noted that along with internal challenges, most notably the Chernobyl meltdown “was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

While Gorbachev himself highlighted that Chernobyl was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the road toward implosion was paved long in advance.

If those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, then Tehran is in for a rude awakening. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Iran has the eighth-highest number of reported cases of the virus and the eighth-highest most deaths. The internal socio-economic unrest, large military expenditures abroad, and poor crisis management that prioritized public image over competency reflects many parallels between the Chernobyl meltdown and the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran.

Just as the seeds to Soviet collapse were sown before the mismanagement in Chernobyl, the internal discontent in Iran was sown before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Limping into the decade, the nationwide protests in late 2019 reflected Iranian authorities’ internal challenges.

The protests started in response to a 50% increase in fuel prices, as a strategy to reallocate revenue lost from American sanctions to reinforce the social safety net. But what started as broad dissatisfaction with financial policy, evolved into numerous intertwined protests on fuel prices, wide-scale corruption and macroeconomic mismanagement. These protests quickly turned violent, and officials, in order  to reframe the narrative, attempted to cover up the severity, painting protesters as hooligans and saboteurs supported by Iran’s enemies.

THIS HIGHLIGHTS how Iran may be on the road toward implosion because it reflects that the regime’s priorities are geopolitical externalities rather than internal responsibilities. The economic sanctions were partially motivated to disincentivize malicious behavior such as the allocation of millions of dollars annually toward state-sponsored terrorism in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza.

Rather than changing its policy abroad to ensure the local social safety net is sufficient, the regime refuses to compromise on its geopolitical ambition, highlighting its priorities and what it views as threats to the regime.

These events don’t exist in a vacuum, as Iran became an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic due to similar mistakes. What once started as bad policy in an attempt to maintain good diplomatic relations with China, snowballed into a public health crisis that authorities desperately attempted to cover up to project strength outward. As the world was restricting travel to and from China, flights from Mahan Air remained open and available as late as February 23 due to the heavy economic reliance on China and to maintain strong diplomatic ties.

Additionally, high-risk areas, such as Shi’ite shrines that attract millions of pilgrims annually, remained open at least a month after the first case of coronavirus infection was reported in Qom. These poor policies allowed for the virus to spread like wildfire, thereby making it difficult for officials to control the narrative and project strength outward, as World Health Organization officials claim that the real statistics can be five times higher than official statistics. The regime has prioritized relations and optics abroad at the cost of responsibilities at home, and it will come at a cost.

The trauma of the pandemic will continue throughout the country as thousands will grieve and millions will wonder if decision-makers could have protected their citizens from such a fate. But as Iran steps out of the fire and into the frying pan of the impending economic catastrophe, there are numerous factors that will hinder a rapid economic turnaround.

Oil revenue in particular is the chief element here because the Iranian oil industry comprises of 15% national GDP. Global energy prices will be comparable to the price of a deli sandwich, minimizing the potential gains from such a fundamental industry, upon which the nation relies.

In this moment of desperation, the regime’s next step is critical. Will the regime invest its resources in the Iranian people in order to heal internal wounds? Or will it merely advance its geopolitical interests while Iran’s adversaries are distracted and weak?

Considering that Iranian propaganda has been steadily operating this past month, the regime clearly still prioritizes external ambition. While this propaganda push may distract the population from grievances at home, these problems might become too pressing to ignore, as Iran hobbles past this historic junction toward the road to implosion.


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