A week before Donald Trump made his infamous comments about drinking disinfectant as a cure for coronavirus, a self-appointed ‘Islamic medical expert’ in Iran had filmed himself on Instagram drinking camel urine. He claims it should be used to treat anyone suffering from the current pandemic. Exiled Iranian broadcasters – especially Saudi- and US-financed TV stations – were covering the story for a few days, as if this was the most important item of global news.
It should be stressed that Mehdi Sabili, the man featured in the video, has no official position in Iran and the Arab News claim that his Instagram account is “popular among some of the regime’s loyalists”1 is meaningless. There are thousands of such social media cranks in Iran and elsewhere. Yet a week later, when the US president made a far more dangerous and stupid claim about curing coronavirus by drinking disinfectant and injecting bleach, the same Persian-speaking media outlets (with the exception of BBC Persian) were extremely quiet about this suggestion or the worldwide condemnation that followed. The exception was a tweet by a producer/presenter on ‘Saudi International’ TV (the name given by Iranians to a Persian TV station broadcasting from London), who compared the two.
This was a bizarre comparison. Mehdi Sabili is a silly individual, whose claims were immediately rebuked by the Iranian government. Trump is the president of the world hegemon power – the man who under normal circumstances many would have expected to be leading global efforts to deal with the pandemic. The incident and the disparity in reporting reflects in some ways the fact that the ‘cold war’ (or media war) against Iran started a long time ago and, as in any other war, truth is the first victim.
Clearly, for all these pro-regime-change media outlets, which promise the dawn of democracy following a US-led military intervention, criticising Trump is not on the agenda. Such criticism might be interpreted as going soft on the main enemy: Iran’s Islamic Republic.
In the midst of all this misinformation, when it comes to the number of victims of coronavirus or Iran’s response to the pandemic, it is impossible to believe either the Islamic Republic or its pro-regime-change opponents. According to the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, the country will now be divided up into white, yellow and red regions based, on the number of infections and deaths. The categorisation will determine the level of activity permitted in each region: an area that has been consistently free of infections will be labelled ‘white’, and there mosques will be able to reopen for Friday prayers. According to the deputy health minster, Iraj Harirchi, this means 116 areas will be in the white sector.
Last week Rouhani claimed Iran was doing better fighting the various pandemics than a number of advanced industrial countries – a view echoed by none other than London’s Blairite mayor, Sadiq Khan. Speaking in an interview on Press TV, Iran’s English-language station, Khan claimed that Iran had been more successful in combating Covid-19 than the UK. (Speaking earlier in a video conversation with Tehran’s mayor, Pirouz Hanachi, Khan had said most of the required measures taken in London are similar to those employed in Iran.)
It is interesting to note that there has been no major outcry about this interview – by all accounts a propaganda coup for the Islamic Republic – as opposed to the treatment Jeremy Corbyn received for an interview with the same station a few years ago.
However, there is some doubt about the accuracy of Iran’s coronavirus statistics. For example, on April 28 it was claimed there had been 92,584 confirmed cases, of whom 72,439 patients had recovered and 5,877 had died. According to official figures, there have been 100 deaths amongst doctors and nurses, but many Iranians believe the real figure is much higher. Having said that, Iran’s enemies have made so many exaggerated claims about the number of patients dying from the disease that no-one believes a word they are saying. In early April Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu shared a fake video from the 2007 mini-series made by Hallmark, called Pandemic and claimed it was evidence that Iran was covering up its coronavirus deaths. According to news agency reports, Netanyahu discussed the clip during an online cabinet meeting, saying he had seen a film of Iranian soldiers dumping dead coronavirus patients into trash piles to conceal the country’s actual death toll.
In the midst of all this Iran has asked for a $5 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund and a lifting of US sanctions, at least for the duration of the pandemic. But Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have not only ignored calls by US Democrats and European countries for a temporary lifting of sanctions: they actually plan to increase them and over the last few weeks we have witnessed a ratcheting up of threats.
On April 27, The New York Times reported on Pompeo’s plans to argue that the US remains a participant in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the 2015 nuclear deal struck between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany – and wanted to trigger what is called a ‘snapback provision’ that would bring back all the pre-2015 UN-related sanctions. Using this mechanism, a country can complain about Iranian non-compliance and demand that Tehran resolves the issue within 30 days; otherwise UN sanctions would be reapplied. Of course, there is a slight problem here, in that two years ago the United States unilaterally left the JCPOA.
Since then the threat of secondary sanctions, plus heavy fines imposed by the US treasury on banks and institutions which continue dealing with Iran, has stopped most European countries and investors doing business there. On April 27, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted:
Two years ago, Pompeo and his boss declared ‘ceasing US participation’ in JCPOA, dreaming that their ‘max pressure’ would bring Iran to its knees. Given that policy’s abject failure, he now wants to be JCPOA participant. Stop dreaming: Iranian nation always decides its destiny.2
But last week, as tension between the two countries escalated, Trump tweeted: “I have instructed the United States navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”
So in the middle of a pandemic not only are we unlikely to get ceasefires, peace deals and the lifting of sanctions: the world hegemon power is determined to increase tension, and add to existing sanctions. Such threats go down well with Trump’s support base at a time when the pandemic is supposed to have affected his presidential re-election prospects.
As we contemplate that possibility of additional sanctions, it is worth reminding everyone how, contrary to Trump’s claims, sanctions affect ordinary people, while those in power are largely unaffected – in fact they may become richer and more powerful by taking advantage of their status. This has definitely been the case in Iran, where those close to circles of power, both within the government and amongst the Revolutionary Guards, have accumulated huge fortunes, benefiting from the black market and access to favourable rates of exchange. Sanctions have given them a unique opportunity to take advantage of the hoarding of goods, price rises and a monopoly over distribution.
However, as a direct consequence of sanctions, millions of workers have been made redundant and often they now have to rely on casual, low-paid jobs to make ends meet. But, as a direct result of the pandemic, even these casual jobs are disappearing., It is estimated that three to six million Iranians will be without work as a result of Covid-19.
And, in this situation, sanctions are increasing the death toll: as elsewhere, there is a shortage of ventilators, medications, surgical equipment, protective clothing and masks – something that is impossible to resolve precisely because of sanctions. Yet there is a relatively strong lobby of Iranian exiles and Iranian-American supporters of Donald Trump who are working day and night with the US state department to make sure current sanctions stay and more people suffer: this would supposedly bring down the Islamic Republic and perhaps even bring the idiot son of the ex-shah, Reza Pahlavi, to power. This scenario is truly bizarre, because so far it has had the opposite effect to what these royalists have wanted: increased pressure from the US has made the government more popular and united the various factions of the regime.
These royalists and the US state department have also started a concerted campaign calling on supreme leader Ali Khamenei to use his foundation’s external funds to pay for the country’s response to the pandemic instead of asking for sanctions relief. As a general rule, of course, it is not a bad idea that the rich should pay to alleviate hardship, but the problem is, why limit such a call to Khamenei and his foundation (worth an estimated $95 billion)? This is not his personal wealth – he uses it to finance various international ideological campaigns, but, if it was a personal fortune, why should we single out Iranian leaders when making such a call? Why not make the same demand on others? How about Trump himself financing the necessary anti-Covid-19 measures in the US? Or Elizabeth Windsor donating her fortune to the national health service, instead of just praising the efforts of a 99-year-old to raise funds?
The way Iranian pro-Trump, rightwing pressure groups operate is also interesting. Both in Canada and the United States, organisations such as the Project for the New American Century – made up of neoconservative Republicans and Democrats, as well as Zionists – have created and funded a plethora of anti-Islamic Republic ‘foundations’, ‘institutions’ and ‘research centres’. A quick web search allows you to see who is funding them. They all employ exiled Iranians (often with very limited intellectual capabilities), some ex-supporters of the Islamic Republic, including former supporters of the ‘reformist’ faction of the regime who have moved steadily to the right, and others who have always been supporters of royalist or other rightwing groups. These people are given exaggerated academic titles in what are clearly non-academic institutions. They are called ‘expert’, ‘senior researcher’, ‘principal investigator’, etc, and given a platform to express their pro-Trump, pro-royalist opinions on the Persian-speaking media.
They are regularly interviewed – at times because of ‘the need to give a balanced view’ – even though you might think from some of the ill-informed comments they make they have never read a book in their life. They repeat ad infinitum exactly the same thing (I would not be surprised if some uneducated, low-ranking state department official had sent an identical memo to all of them). They speak out for sanctions, for Reza Pahlavi, and tell us how people inside Iran really love Trump for imposing those sanctions. No-one seems to ask why we have to listen to these fools.
No wonder the vast majority of Iranians have no confidence in either the current regime or these pathetic opponents.