Hub of Iranian Revolution Becomes Epicenter Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, Experts Explain Political Implications

March 12, 2020 Updated: March 12, 2020

The city of Qom in Iran, a significant destination of Shia pilgrimage and the epicenter of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, has become an epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, and experts believe this has political repercussions within Iran and in the entire Middle East.

“In the 1960s, Qom became the center from which Ayatollah Khomeini opposed the Pahlavi dynasty,” Dr. Pierre Pahlavi told The Epoch Times via email. Pahlavi is a professor at the Department of Defense Studies at the Canadian Forces College and a member of the Pahlavi family that ruled Iran before the ayatollah took over.

“In January 1978, the holy city was the scene of the first clashes between the radical clergy and the monarchist forces. Qom was for several years the residence of Khomeini and, for that matter, the real capital of the Islamic republic for a few months after the collapse of the imperial system,” Pahlavi said.

Spread From Qom

Iran reported the country’s first two deaths in Qom on Feb. 19. Since then, the virus has become unstoppable, initially spreading unabated by the clergy’s message to pilgrims to keep coming, unlike other cities in the world that immediately shut their doors.

“We call this holy shrine Daralshafa, means people come and heal from mental and physical illnesses, so they must be open,” said Seyyed Mohammad Saeedi, the custodian of the Shrine of Masoumeh and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative in the city, according to a video on social media.

Nicole Robinson, a Middle East expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, told The Epoch Times via email that hundreds of Chinese students and junior clerics study at the seminaries in Qom, and the senior clergy’s management of the virus was a disaster.

“It is unclear how long ago the outbreak began, but the Iranian government’s response to keep religious shrines open despite the initial outbreak is likely the reason the virus was not contained and instead spread to other cities in Iran,” Robinson wrote.

CNN reported that about 8 percent of the Iranian Parliament is infected.

“Additional visits to Qom from top Iranian government officials such as Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s deputy health minister, spread the virus among high-level officials in the Iranian government,” said Robinson.

As of March 11, 354 Iranians had died due to the coronavirus, and 9,000 were infected, according to Iranian state media.

However, Radio Farda, a Persian language broadcaster supported by the U.S. Congress, reported on March 9 cover-up by the Iranian regime and sourced the Entekhab news website saying the coronavirus death toll was more than 2,000.

Virus Outbreak Mideast Iran
Workers disinfect the shrine of the Shiite Saint Imam Abdulazim to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Shahr-e-Ray, south of Tehran, Iran, on March 7, 2020. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo)

Shifting the Blame

Seyyed blamed U.S. President Donald Trump for the growing crisis in the city.

He said Qom is a “shelter for the Shiites of the world, the center of religious seminaries and the city where Shiite sources of emulation live.”

“The enemy wants to instill fear in people’s hearts, make Qom look like an unsafe city, and to take revenge for all its defeats,” Seyyed said during an evening prayer, according to Radio Farda.

Pahlavi said conspiracy theories have always flourished in Iran under such situations.

“Since Operation Stuxnet, the cyber virus used to neutralize Iran’s nuclear program a decade ago, Iranian politicians and military leaders have developed a besieged citadel syndrome that tends to get mixed up in paranoia,” he said.

Operation Stuxnet was a computer virus that made its way into the Iranian equipment controlling centrifuges used to enrich uranium, dealing a temporary challenge to the Iranian nuclear program, according to Reuters.

Repercussions Inside Iran

The coronavirus crisis has added to the Iranian regime’s internal woes, as it has experienced public protests since December 2019.

Pahlavi said this new crisis is adding to the regime’s sources of tension and could prove “very damaging” for its future.

“The inability of Iranian leaders to contain this new crisis and their propensity to minimize its magnitude have only increased the distrust of the Iranians vis-à-vis a system which they deem more and more incapable of defending their interests,” said Pahlavi.

Iran has been facing anti-regime public protests since 2017, which recently intensified after the Iranian military confessed to mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian plane, killing at least 130 Iranian citizens.

Gregg Roman, director of the Middle East Forum, called protests in December 2017 an “ironic” situation because they started over a bird flu crisis that led to the mass culling of chickens and other poultry, leading to a rise in the price of eggs.

The egg prices increased by 50 percent and even 100 percent, according to Vox, and became symbolic of wider economic problems that the Iranian regime couldn’t solve, as the protests quickly spread to many other cities.

“So now the fact that they [elite] are the ones who are being subjugated and are being more prone to this virus, this sort of like, you know, the Faustian bargain that they made with their public health officials,” Roman said, adding that the virus has come back to “bite them.”

Robinson said the regime’s incompetence to deal with the crisis will only fuel further public dissatisfaction.

Kill Zones

Roman alleged that the Iranian regime is refusing to take responsibility for the public health crisis and is “creating kill zones, kill zones throughout cities which are allegedly infected with the virus.” Roman used the term “kill zones” to emphasize the Iranian regime’s incompetence in dealing with the virus.

An Atlantic report from late February described how, in the first few weeks of the outbreak, the Islamic regime encouraged people to visit Qom instead of implementing self-quarantine, facilitating spread across the whole country.

The NCRI stated in a March 10 release that deaths exceeded 3,600 and that the regime’s cover-up in Qom has turned “Tehran’s 9.7 million population into a killing ground” because Qom and Tehran are strongly connected.

Social media is replete with videos of mass burials of coronavirus victims inside Iran, including a few videos of people protesting against these burials near their homes.

There are also videos of the regime sanitizing people and roads, using pesticides and agricultural sprays. The Epoch Times couldn’t verify the authenticity of these videos.

Virus Outbreak Mideast Iran
A pharmacist wearing a face mask works in western Tehran, Iran, on Feb. 29, 2020. (Vahid Salemi/AP Photo)

Repercussions in the Middle East

Experts said that the coronavirus will make Iran more isolated and less secure in the Middle East, thus substantially impacting its power in the region.

“The Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Oman have already reported their first virus cases, and all these countries have strong links to Iran,” Serim said.

“Even, Lebanon, UAE, and Bahrain have already claimed that their virus cases were stemmed from the Iranians.”

She said the epidemic will impact Iran’s significance as a religious pilgrimage center.

Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst, told The Epoch Times in a message that the crisis will impact the legitimacy of the regime in the region.

He said it will “increase the economic pressure on Iran, and contribute to further isolating it, as more states are aware right now how dangerous this regime is.”

Bakeer said the Iranian regime never enjoyed transparency, and the coronavirus crisis shows that it can’t be trusted, even in times of such disasters.

Pahlavi said the governments of other Arab countries with Shia minorities are concerned that their citizens will travel to the religious sites in Iran and bring home the virus.

Virus Outbreak-Iran
A woman has her temperature checked and her hands disinfected as she enters the Palladium Shopping Center, in northern Tehran, Iran, on March 3, 2020. (Vahid Salemi/AP Photo)

In a statement, the Saudi Arabian government denounced the Iranian regime for granting Saudi citizens entry to Iran amid the virus outbreak and urged Iran to reveal the identities of the citizens.

“These actions are a proof of Iran’s direct responsibility in increasing COVID-19 infections and in the virus’s outbreak all around the world,” according to the Saudi statement.

Pahlavi said the Saudi statement illustrates that, in addition to being a major public health problem in the Middle East, the coronavirus epidemic has become the subject of a real psychological war between the countries in the region.

Esra Serim, a France-based Turkish analyst, told The Epoch Times in an email that she doesn’t expect the domestic unrest to escalate inside Iran in the next few days, but it can continue.

“Because a regime isolated by the U.S. administration could pose grave danger to both the regional and global health and environment,” she said.

Serim said Iran’s economic woes will continue to increase because the country is under U.S. sanctions and relies on China for help.

“And now Iran’s relationship with China is forced to be disrupted due to the serious epidemic in China,” she said.

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