Iran's leaders are coming under increased pressure over their response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, as the country announced Thursday (March 19th) the virus has killed 149 more people, a new single-day record.
Without a lockdown in place, the virus has spread to all 31 of the country's provinces, drawing great criticism from the public.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on March 1st announced a "Campaign Against Coronavirus", making its role in the crisis response official.
The Basij Resistance Force, an IRGC-affiliated paramilitary group "will be prepared and active in the arena of co-operation and assistance until complete victory over this disease and return to normal conditions", it said in a statement.
Iran's Passive Defence Organisation (PDO) is also tasked with spearheading the nation's COVID-19 response.
The PDO is responsible for "policymaking, planning, directing, organising, co-ordinating, monitoring and operating the passive defence and civil defence... activities of enforcement agencies".
Its mandate includes efforts to address cyber, biological, radioactive, chemical and economic threats.
Iranians decry PDO's dual purpose
Despite its civil role, the PDO has gradually become a military-operational organisation mostly staffed by IRGC and Basij personnel, analysts say.
This dual purpose and shift in focus comes amid a growing distrust by the Iranian people in the ability of the IRGC to handle to COVID-19 outbreak.
"The PDO's establishment [in 2004], like all other organisations that have been formed outside the government over time during Ali Khamenei's leadership, was in fact part of his plan to form a parallel body," said political analyst Amir Reza Taghipourian.
"Since the Supreme Leader believes government agencies do not have complete allegiance to him, he has always sought to create organisations under his own control," he told Diyaruna.
"He has implemented similar actions in regards to the parliament and has supported parallel institutions like the Expediency Discernment Council and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. In fact, the IRGC itself is a parallel military institution."
"Khamenei only trusts the agencies under his own control and he relies most on members of the IRGC to set up these agencies," he said. "For this reason, the PDO is also an agency that is controlled by the IRGC."
The European Union announced sanctions against the PDO in 2010, accusing the organisation of having ties to Iran's development of nuclear weapons delivery systems.
Since 2015, Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Jalali has been in charge of the PDO. A committee chaired by Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, head of the Armed Forces General Staff, oversees the organisation.
Jalali answers only to Khamenei and Bagheri.
Secrecy and lies prolong crisis
The reason the PDO has bungled the COVID-19 response is because its focus in recent years has shifted to suppressing and restricting Iranian citizens online, engaging in psychological warfare and developing Iran's technological infrastructure to confront foreign influence, analysts say.
Like other agencies dependent on the military, the PDO is accused of secrecy and lying about the spread of the disease in Iran and, as a result, prolonging and worsening the crisis.
On February 4th, for example, the PDO released a statement saying, "Field surveys and existing evidence show the possibility of an outbreak of the disease in Iran is small."
Just one month later, the COVID-19 outbreak in Iran is one of the deadliest outside China, where the disease originated.
A total of 18,407 people have contracted the disease in Iran, with 1,046 new cases confirmed in the last 24 hours.
Still, President Hassan Rouhani has continued to defend the government's response.
"Some ask why the government isn't intervening, but I think we have intervened significantly," he said in televised remarks Wednesday after a weekly meeting of his cabinet.
"Great things have been done [including] measures no other country has taken," he said, flanked by ministers wearing face masks.
Harsh criticism for COVID-19 response
Iranians are skeptical, especially given recent cover-ups and lies from the regime.
"All government and public institutions have been mobilised to fight the coronavirus," Farid Modarres, a Qom-based journalist, tweeted in early March. "Wondering where is the PDO, the most important agency for these times; what has it anticipated and done?"
Hadi Yazdani, a physician in Iran, had similar concerns.
"We have two organisations called the Crisis Management Agency and the PDO; if there is a reason for them to have been established, it is to play a role in times such as the coronavirus crisis," he tweeted on March 8th. "Do you see any trace or effect of the managers of these two organisations now? Should they be in the media only in a time of calm?"
Mohammad Delavari, host of the programme Tehran Twenty which is broadcast on Iranian television Channel 5, had harsh criticism of Jalali's role in managing the crisis.
Jalali in an interview with Fars News Agency on March 3rd mentioned the preposterous claim that COVID-19 could be a biological attack against Iran.
"Mr. Jalali, head of the PDO, should come and answer to us and say if we have been biologically attacked or not, and if we were attacked, what have the groups under his control been doing?" Delavari said on the March 7th broadcast.
Power struggle endangers lives
The conflict and power struggle over which entity should take charge of management of the COVID-19 crisis is becoming more apparent every day.
"The PDO declared a 'white status' in early February while a number of citizens in Qom died from the coronavirus," Ali Zanjani, a political activist in Iran, told Diyaruna.
"This is not only a sign of its inadequacy, but also reveals that contrary to its statutes and claims, the organisation's main priority is not the preservation of people's lives, but like other military and governmental institutions, it prioritises the power interests of the rulers," he said.
"The organisation's unprofessional style of confronting the coronavirus still continues and today even at the height of the crisis, [the PDO] and its supporters are in power struggles with health institutions and without shame say that no one takes orders from a doctor and for this reason, the centre of management should be removed from the Ministry of Health's hands."
Jalali had on March 11th criticised the Rouhani government for its transfer of crisis management to the Ministry of Health, saying that no one "is used to accepting orders from the head of a medical school".