Iran needs a national bio-defense strategy

Iranian Diplomacy | Kaveh L. Afrasiabi: As Iran struggles against the growing threat of coronavirus that is on the verge of turning into a global pandemic, legitimate questions have been raised regarding the government’s opposition to China-style draconian measures including quarantine of affected towns and cities, as well as the crisis-preparations prior to the outbreak of the infectious disease inside Iran.

Of course, it goes without saying that sanctions-hit Iran would still be ill-prepared regardless of the best plan and, naturally, we must place a lion share of the blame on the unjust, and illegal, US sanctions that violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231. In other words, the real stigmatization belongs to the Machiavellian Trump Administration that, as professor Joseph Nye has rightly noted, is denude of any moral and ethical considerations. Therefore, it comes as little surprise that Iranian officials have rejected US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s empty offer to help, which coincides with a New York Times story on US’s determination to continue implementing its “maximum pressure strategy,” a hitherto failed strategy that targets ordinary Iranians first and foremost, as confirmed by UN health officials.

Yet, it would be simplistic to ignore the internal causes of what appears to be a sub-optimal government response to the epidemic, which has infected some officials and lawmakers as well, i.e., a manna from heaven for the enemies of Iran who have resorted to foreign policy by assassinations as of late. One shortcoming pertains to the stockpile of test kits, now imported from China, which could have been done much earlier, so why wait?! Another is the absence of airport check of incoming passengers from China and averting the need to place them under 14 day quarantine as has been done by other countries. There are also unconfirmed reports in the Iranian dailies that some people who had tested positive have been allowed to roam free and or simply advised to maintain self-isolation. Compare this with, say Singapore, that has imposed strict measures, resulting in the successful lack of any virus-related deaths. We even hear that some government officials who have been tested positive are resting at home, when they should be under proper care at hospitals, this simply makes no sense whatsoever. A proper preparation would have entailed, among other things, (a) proper training of hospital staff, (b) availability of full protective gears stockpiled at hospitals, (c) pre-designation of a national center headed by a virus specialist given real authority, and (d) allocation of necessary resources to combat the spread of disease. The belated government response may have translated into precious time lost in terms of crisis-prevention and also the contamination of some high officials, which is a national security risk.

Another shortfall relates to the weakness of central government in imposing its will on the centrifugal religious authorities, who have defied the plea by health officials to suspend the mass gatherings and close the shrines, reflecting an unhealthy bifurcation of power and authority to the detriment of both public health and national security. For the decision to ban public gatherings and to halt religious pilgrimage due to the rising epidemic is, and ought to be, a purely public health decision by the relevant authorities, which should not be questioned or compromised by either political or religious considerations. With Qom as the epicenter of the disease, more draconian measures including the quarantine of this holy city maybe called for and necessary, as China’s successful example has shown. Instead, a much belated screening of people travelling from Qom is now in place, which cannot possibly cover those asymptomatic patients, hence it is a futile gesture.

Hitting Iran with the force of a second sanctions regime, notwithstanding the reaction of Iran’s neighbors closing their borders with Iran, this epidemic represents one of the most formidable challenges confronting Iran since the revolution. Iran needs to devise a sound bio-defense national strategy to confront this, as well as future, such epidemics, which exact a toll on the national economy. This requires a concerted effort to draw up a comprehensive blue print with the help of health, security, and other experts. This is a top requirement that simply cannot be postponed.