Future generations will certainly perceive this epidemic as a milestone and a profound caesura in the history of the Islamic Republic. One will read how influential ayatollahs first encouraged the spread of the virus and later declared it as possibly bioterrorism against the Islamic Republic. One will read in the history books how some mullahs travelled all over the country to promote Western medicine and Islamic medicine, and how the security forces forbade the living to speak about the numbers of the dead.
More importantly, through these stories, the survivors will recognise the great gulf that has opened up between reason and superstition, and will learn of the loss of confidence that has spread even among believers.
The impact of COVID-19 on Iran’s state religion is likely to occupy many people for a long time. Because the coronavirus isn't just killing people. It is also attacking the very sanctities on which the peculiar state system called the Islamic Republic is based. There will be a pre-corona period and a post-corona period in Iran. Nothing will ever be the same again.
If the Europeans in the Middle Ages regarded the plague as divine retribution for human sin, if at that time religious end-time madness was rampant, if flagellants marched through the country and whipped themselves as a sign of their atonement, or if one sought protection by turning to God and his servants on earth, then exactly the opposite is happening in Iran these days. People are fleeing the clerics. Every day new names of Shia scholars from Qom who have died of the coronavirus appear on social media. Up to now there have been twelve.
The king is not naked
The king is not naked. On the contrary. The people see him well protected and veiled via the Internet, even though he lives in secret. Since the virus officially arrived, Ali Khamenei, religious leader and the most powerful man in Iran, has only appeared twice and very briefly in the virtual world. Once, his personal doctor sat next to him, on a sofa and at a proper distance. The second time Khamenei was seen planting a tree in his garden, his shovel-holding hand protected by a plastic bag. It was the day of environmental protection.
The sale of alcohol has been authorised within Iran to improve and increase disinfection. State television is showing dancing and singing medical staff in hospitals to spread optimism: just two signs of the prevailing helplessness.
Nor is it clear who is ultimately responsible for combatting the coronavirus. On 11 March the President of Parliament asked Khamenei in a letter who should be in charge of the response team. Hassan Rouhani, Khamenei is said to have replied. But even the President of the Republic hardly appears in public anymore.
And even the Revolutionary Guards are in quarantine. Their barracks are the best protected places in the country, the news agency Fars quoted a commander as saying. They are apparently preparing for the time after coronavirus. Whether they will find the same country after that remains to be seen.