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

By Venus Upadhayaya

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,” said Dr. Pierre Pahlavi to The Epoch Times in an 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.

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 the social media.

Nicole Robinson, a Middle East expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, told The Epoch Times in an 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,” said Robinson.

Since the Iranian leaders visit Qom often, the virus spread into the ruling elite, killing one of Khamenei’s advisors, three Revolutionary Guard commanders, the deputy minister of health, a former ambassador to Syria who was currently working as an advisor to Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Khomeini’s ambassador to the Vatican, and an advisor to the head of the Judiciary.

CNN reported that 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 Wednesday, 354 Iranians had died due to Coronavirus and 9,000 were infected, according to Islamic Republic News Agency, Iranian state media.

However, Radio Farda, a Persian language broadcaster supported by the U.S. Congress, reported coverup by the Iranian regime and sourced the Entekhab news website saying the coronavirus death toll is over 2,000.

Virus Outbreak Mideast Iran
Workers disinfect the shrine of the Shiite Saint Imam Abdulazim to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus 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 because 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 a Friday 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 already been experiencing public protects since December.

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 an Ukrainian plane, killing at least 130 Iranian citizens.

Gregg Roman, the 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 salad poultry, leading to a huge rise in the price of eggs.

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

“So now, the fact that they are the ones [elite] 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,” said Roman 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 uses the term “kill zones” to emphasize the Iranian regime’s incompetence in dealing with the virus across. 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 the spread across the whole country.

The NCRI said in a March 10 release that the deaths exceeded 3,600 and that the regime’s coverup in Qom has turned “Tehran’s 9.7 million population into a killing ground,” since Qom and Tehran are extremely 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.

“Because 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,” said Serim.

“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.

Pahalvi 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-Mideast-Iran
People have their temperature checked and their hands disinfected as they enter 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,” the Saudi statement said.

Pahalvi said that the Saudi statement illustrates that in addition to being a major public health problem in the Middle East region, the coronavirus epidemic has become the subject of a real psychological war between the different countries of 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 was under U.S. sanctions and was relying 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.

From The Epoch Times