Iran’s coronavirus crisis exacerbates internal struggle between government and IRGC

IRGC IranA tense struggle is unfolding in Iran between the country’s civilian leaders and the parallel state of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The two entities are fighting about who will control the national response to COVID-19, according to sources. The outbreak of the pandemic in Iran followed closely that of China. Today the Iranian government claims the disease has infected no more than 115,000 people and killed fewer than 7,000. But these numbers seem low for a country of 82 million, and many observers dispute them.

The secrecy with which the government is treating the coronavirus epidemic may be masking an increasingly tense turf war between Iran’s civilian leaders, led by President Hassan Rouhani, and the IRGC. The latter is controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Iran watchers describe the IRGC as a ‘praetorian guard’ whose members possess immense power and often wealth. Today the IRGC is a military force with a command structure that is distinct from that of Iran’s regular Armed Forces. It maintains its own army, navy and air force, has its own paramilitary and political protection units, and is in charge of Iran’s nuclear program.

The IRGC has seen its income fall drastically in the past two years, partly due to the continuing economic pressure that Iran is facing from strict sanctions imposed on it by the United States. The effects of the dramatic reduction in the value of Iran’s currency —down nearly 2/3 since 2018— have only been exacerbated by the monumental drop in global oil prices, which has practically decimated Tehran’s main source of foreign income.

According to sources, Khamenei and the IRGC forced the country’s civilian leadership to re-open the economy last month, fearing an absolute economic collapse. But this only resulted in a dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases in nearly every region of the country. The IRGC is now reportedly trying to take control of Iran’s civilian healthcare system, in an effort to prevent the government from disclosing the extent of the re-emergence of the virus throughout the country.

Meanwhile, the IRGC’s prestige has suffered greatly this year, following the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian civilian airliner over Tehran in January, which killed nearly 180 people, most of them Iranians. Last week, the IRGC was believed to behind a missile test that went terribly wrong, resulting in the destruction of an Iranian navy ship that killed as many as 31 sailors. These fatal errors are for the time being giving President Rouhani the right to question the IRGC’s competence and resist giving away his administration’s control of the national response to COVID-19. The turf war continues to intensify, however, and it is difficult to forecast which side will prevail.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 May 2020 | Permalink

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