Which way is Iran leaning as coronavirus, nuke embarrassments mount?

Regime thought election win would stabilize power.

A VOLUNTEER sprays disinfectant at a bus station in Tehran during the coronavirus outbreak earlier this month (photo credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/ALI KHARA VIA REUTERS)
A VOLUNTEER sprays disinfectant at a bus station in Tehran during the coronavirus outbreak earlier this month
A dizzying zigzag of politics and fortune is making it difficult to understand which direction Iran is going in.
On the one hand, in late February, Iranian hard-liners won the parliamentary election by a landslide, capturing around 200 out of its 290 seats.
This seemed to signal greater hard-line stability and a potentially sturdier and more difficult adversary for Israel and the US going forward.
On the other hand, there were embarrassing holes in that electoral victory, and the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been exposed to additional embarrassing incidents.
These include having to admit to shooting down a Ukrainian airliner, last week’s admission that nuclear advances are being delayed by the coronavirus crisis and Wednesday’s disclosure that the official number of deaths by COVID-19 are likely only about half of the true total.
So many consecutive embarrassments being aired in public is virtually unheard of for a regime that has turned crushing protests into an art.
Collectively, the negative stories could mean that the regime is shaking at its foundations and might finally be vulnerable after surviving just over 40 years.
But before sorting through the embarrassing moments, what was the significance of the hard-liner electoral victory?
Iran expert Raz Zimmt, from the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv, told The Jerusalem Post that though it was a “landslide victory for the conservatives [in Tehran], in most of the areas, no reformists were approved to run.”
Addressing Khamenei’s naked power grab when his Guardian Council disqualified more than 6,000 opposing candidates, Zimmt said: “This is a continuous trend from the last two years of getting more extreme and showing shoulder-to-shoulder unity in the conservative camp.”
To portray a unified picture, he said, the regime sought to “take over all of the power centers,” which also will help it stand up to “external pressures… like the Trump ‘maximum pressure’ campaign… as well as help starting to plan for post-Khamenei,” since the supreme leader is 80 and has been sick more often in recent years.
“Will this also happen for the Iranian presidential election [in 2021], which is much more important? There is a connection,” Zimmt said. “Usually if the conservatives control the Majlis, this also has implications for the presidency.”
At the same time, the regime was embarrassed in February by a record-low voter turnout of 42.57%.
Recent elections had seen voter turnout at levels of between 60% to 66%, and the previous lowest turnout was around 52% in 2004.
In addition, observers view Iranian results as notoriously inflated, meaning that the actual turnout was probably even lower.
Besides this hole in the electoral victory for hard-liners, in January, an IRGC unit – one of the pillars of the hard-liners – accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner full of Iranians.
Though the regime initially tried to deny involvement - like other successful cover-ups - the large number of dead, including foreigners, forced an IRGC admission of fault.
Another source of hard-liner pride besides the IRGC is the nuclear program.
The Islamic Republic had planned to present 122 new nuclear achievements on April 8, its national nuclear day, as it has done in recent years.
Of key interest was the expected rollout of new advanced centrifuge capabilities – something that might eventually help accelerate Tehran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon.
Instead, Iran had to postpone its nuclear day due to the coronavirus crisis.
This is not only an embarrassing domestic admission that they cannot hide from. It is also an admission that lets the world know its nuclear program and plans are off their game.
Still, the most embarrassing and long-term damaging admission may have come Wednesday from a nonpolitical parliamentary committee report.
The report said Iran’s death total from coronavirus may be nearly twice the official totals, and its number of infections may be eight to 10 times greater.  
The official total only counted Iranians who had died in a hospital and who tested positive for the virus before they died, investigators cited in the report said. Anyone who died outside of a hospital or who had not been tested was simply not counted.
With Iran’s official tally of 77,995 infections and 4,869 deaths, the report’s conclusions could mean the Islamic Republic may have as many as 750,000 to 800,000 infections and 8,500 to 9,000 dead.
This would put it past the US total of 639,000 infections despite having a population only one-quarter the US’s size.
The regime and its notorious ability at suppressing embarrassing information has been dogged by the coronavirus since nearly the start of the outbreak, when several of its top officials were infected – some exposing symptoms on camera – or even died.
Also, from the start, its neighboring countries, such as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey, closed their borders to Iranians long before countries across the globe started closing their borders.
This embarrassment has also limited how much Tehran could spread terrorism and manage its proxies across the region.
Taken together, the hard-liners are probably more secure in staying in power than they otherwise would be, despite the many crises, because they seized control of parliament in February.
With no official rival power center to challenge them – and President Hassan Rouhani has been heavily isolated and weakened without support in parliament – it is hard to see a center of gravity emerging that could lead those disenfranchised by the regime’s failures to actually overthrow it.
The coronavirus crisis is weakening and dividing protesters just as it weakens the regime.
For Israel and the US the good news is unlikely to be regime change, but rather of Tehran seeing delays in some of its more nefarious plans for its proxies and nuclear program.
Still, the continued loss of control over the public narrative is undoubtedly destabilizing for the iron-clad regime and while it might take time, it could signify another chip in its armor.