April 21 (UPI) -- Either stay at home and die of hunger, or go out to work and die of the coronavirus. That seems to be the stark choice on offer to the population of Iran.
Insisting that they have managed to control the virus, the theocratic regime has ordered its impoverished citizens to return to work or face severe fines or even imprisonment. President Hassan Rouhani has said it is safe for people to return to work and for schools to reopen and many shops, factories, warehouses and workshops have resumed operations, exposing their workers to the disease.
Far from controlling COVID-19, as Rouhani and the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insist, resistance units of the main opposition, People's Mojahdein Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), report that there are more than 1 million Iranians infected with the virus, with the overall death toll spiraling to over 33,000.
The mullahs have lost control of the disease and lost control of the Iranian economy. Having stolen the people's wealth for 41 years since the 1979 revolution, squandering billions on the export of terror and on proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq, spending billions more on their top-secret nuclear weapons program, while stuffing bags of cash into their own private bank accounts, they are now facing crunch time.
The perfect storm of an economy in free fall due to brazen mismanagement and U.S. President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" sanctions policy, combined with the mushrooming impact of the coronavirus, has left the mullahs adrift in a sea of turmoil and confusion.
On the one hand, they pretend the spread of the virus and the overall death toll is much lower than the true figures and that everything is fine, while on the other hand, they go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund begging for a $5 billion bailout package. Even Mohsen Rafsanjani, chairman of Tehran's City Council, has acknowledged that the true statistics for those infected and killed by the virus are much greater than those announced daily on state-controlled media, by the government.
For Iran's 80 million people, the majority of whom were surviving, even before the virus, on incomes at or below the international poverty line, the mullahs' offer of coronavirus loans of 1 million tomans ($60) per family, repayable after two months, is a bizarre joke. They know from social media the generous extent of coronavirus aid being distributed internationally by countries around the globe.
They know that in the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson has pledged help of £330 billion ($410 billion). Emmanuel Macron in France, Pedro Sánchez in Spain, Angela Merkel in Germany and other leaders have pledged similar massive aid packages, which will cause years of debt and austerity. In America, Trump has pledged trillions of dollars in economic relief.
Every civilized nation is pursuing a policy of almost total lockdown, with major compensation being provided for workers forced to stay at home and for shops, restaurants, factories and warehouses forced to close. But these nations and their democratically elected governments put the lives and health of their citizens first. Iran's beleaguered citizens recognize that no such help is being offered by their oppressive rulers, despite the fact that Khamenei and his elite cohorts are well-known to have ready access to funds worth many billions of dollars.
According to information leaked by some of the regime's senior officials, there are five institutions that control in excess of 60 percent of the national wealth. These include: the Headquarters to Execute the Imam's Order (Setad Ejraie Farman Imam), the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Khatam al-Anbiya Garrison, the Astan-e Quds Razavi, the Martyrs Foundation and the Mostaz'afan Foundation. All of these institutions are under the direct total of Khamenei.
Setad's assets and capital alone are estimated to be in excess of $100 billion. The National Development Fund, which is also under the total control of Khamenei, reportedly has billions of dollars in assets. These institutions possess huge assets and facilities plundered from the Iranian people. Even a small portion of their riches could pay for the costs of confronting the coronavirus, including paying the salaries of workers, employees, doctors and nurses. But Khamenei, Rouhani and their clerical cronies would rather fill their own pockets or direct these funds to waging war on their Middle East neighbors and sponsoring terror than saving lives and businesses in Iran.
Now the "Islamic Republic" has begun to realize the error of their ways. The seething unrest in the general population that erupted in a nationwide uprising in November 2019 is bubbling under the surface, ready to explode. Iran is once again a powder keg. The IRGC -- the regime's Gestapo -- murdered 1,500 of the unarmed protesters during the November uprising and arrested thousands more. Many of these young political prisoners are now facing almost certain contagion in the regime's death-trap prisons, where no medical facilities to combat the coronavirus have been provided. Resulting prison riots and breakouts have been ruthlessly crushed by the IRGC, with dozens of escapees killed and injured and several subsequently recaptured and executed.
The mullahs now fear another wave of protests which will explode into a new revolution, sweeping their medieval regime from power. They are terrified and their panic has been reflected in speeches and writings by some of their top officials. The state-run Mizan News Agency, which is affiliated with the Iranian regime's judiciary, published a recent article in which they stated: "With a severe shortage of goods and commodities, there is a possibility of a rebellion. But whether there will be national uprisings against the regime, the extent of the people's resilience to the crisis should be mentioned. Crossing the line of resilience and the lack of a centralized crisis management mechanism can turn local and regional uprisings into nationwide uprisings. Linking the corona crisis in Iran with past developments, including November 2019, creates a rebellion process."
On April 7, the state-run Iran-Emrouz daily newspaper stated: "We are going to have a major social upheaval after the coronavirus is over. The situation is not going to be calm. It is going to be exactly like the period after the 2017 elections [uprisings], and we are going to see repeated and powerful incidents."
The media are right. The Iranian people have had enough. Being told to choose death from hunger at home or death from disease at work, they may decide that the greatest threat to their lives is not starvation or COVID-19. The greatest threat to their lives is the theocratic regime and the only cure is regime change.
Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.