There is clear cut evidence, both in reports on democracy and through empirical evidence from around the globe, that the trend of the world is in the direction of autocracy, away from the considered norm of democratic ideals. Iran is perhaps one of the biggest contributors to this, scoring just 16 in the Freedom House Index (2020). With little doubt that Iran is riddled with autocratic qualities, questions of where democratic erosion exists come into play. The Coronavirus pandemic, and by extension the vaccine roll out, provided the Iranian government with the perfect opportunity to continue to increase their power in a series of corrupt actions, spreading misinformation and further fear among the people. From over-politicisation to the blatant ignoring of scientific facts, the steps backwards for the country, hindering any chance of democratic development, can not be ignored.
Iran is an autocracy. There is no escaping this simple fact. Shown by the general weak guidelines on the powers that institutions hold and therefore the dominance of unelected actors, the general corruption that plagues the state and the widespread restrictions on freedom of speech it is impossible to deny the fact that democratic institutions and values are practically non-existent.
But this does not mean that Iran has nothing significant to add to the debate surrounding democratic erosion, and, in fact, this example can lend itself to neighbouring countries, almost as a cautionary tale, a handbook of what-not-to-do if they decide to embark on a journey towards democratic progression.
Iran may be at the pinnacle of autocracy, yet there was one area of the country that stayed relatively successful in serving most of its citizens: the healthcare system. Despite there having previously been large inequalities in healthcare between those living in rural and urban areas, the Iranian government has devoted time and money into creating a system that is fairer and more beneficial for the citizens. This was until the vaccine rollout began.
Iran’s implementation of the vaccine programme is miles away from those adopted in Western countries, and this is due to President Rouhani and Supreme Leader of Iran, Khamenei, both rejecting the import and use of vaccinations developed and produced in Britain and USA. The reason for this rejection is not only down to the idea of ‘unknown side effects’ but the suggestion by high up religious officials that the vaccine turns people that have had it gay. This shock decision and stance taken by Iran demonstrates one of the harsh realities of autocratic leaders: their ambition to politicise and control every area of life.
To respond to this Iran has partnered with Russia to endorse their vaccine, whilst creating some of their own alongside. Hoping to become a vaccine-producing giant and rival many of the larger, wealthier nations, Iran has shown no slowing on its production of homegrown vaccines. However, support for their safety and effectiveness remains relatively limited. Those that claim that Iran’s new Fakhra vaccine is ‘100% safe’ have done so only on state-run media outlets and without any scientific evidence to back it up. Iran has also previously ignored healthcare officials and scientific committees as they claim that the vaccine has no proven success.
There is very clear misinformation here, where the government supplies false or incorrect information to the people, in terms of both the claims that the vaccine turns people gay, and also in promoting the success of Iranian vaccines, and the failures of those from other countries. This is a very dangerous instance for the democratic workings of a country, and promotes clear backsliding. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Khamenei, has repeatedly reported that the intention of Western countries is to spread Covid to the Middle East through their vaccines, or to use Iranian citizens as ‘testers’ for the vaccine.
Misinformation here is a massive problem and is employed by autocratic leaders to exert control over the people. The fears already caused by the pandemic are played on and exploited by the government in order to control citizens, and enforce the idea that Iran is a successful and important country: they have no need for vaccines from outsider countries.
There is a clear overreach of government power being demonstrated here, with political officials ignoring the advice and expertise of scientists. This is an example of democratic backsliding itself, with the government extending its powers, into the scientific field, and eroding the independence of both the healthcare system and science.
And, as if the already presented evidence for the problematic nature of Iran’s vaccine rollout isn’t enough, there is widespread corruption in who actually receives the vaccine, with those that have connections to hospital managers effectively able to jump the queue.
As Iran is already an autocracy, it can be argued that there is no democratic erosion present here. However, the argument presented is that in reversing the arguably successful measures taken in the healthcare industry in the years preceding the Coronavirus pandemic, Iran is taking a step backwards, closer to autocracy and impeding any hope of democratic development. Franz, Geddes and Wright (2014) provide an extensive criteria to determine whether a regime is becoming more democratic. With this politically dominated approach to the vaccine rollout, Iran meets none of them. An autocratic regime ends when the leader is removed and a more democratic one is introduced. In a country where the leaders are exerting more control over previously more independent areas of life, the chances of this appear very slim.
This form of democratic erosion, whereby an already autocratic country only serves to move further away from achieving democracy, is in line with Lindberg and Luhrmann’s (2019) understanding. They apply the term ‘autocratic consolidation’ to define an autocratic country which employs more anti-democratic measures. Iran is a prime example of this. Many of its institutions are dominated by autocracy, and the government has now furthered this by exerting control and spreading misinformation in the healthcare and scientific sphere.
One of the most alarming things to come from the ever changing situation of the vaccine rollout in Iran is the ability of autocratic leaders to politicise every area of life. Here, the simple act of human survival, from Coronavirus, and very basic healthcare, is dragged into the political sphere as the Iranian government bans vaccines from rival countries in order to push the importance of their own.
This is dangerous, not only as it detracts from the real problem, the loss of human life and the continuation of the pandemic, but it leads to more control over citizens lives than ever before. The role of a government is to help mediate between the people and the state, and provide solutions to problems. This politicisation is blatantly ignoring this duty, something arguably quite common in autocracies, and is only serving to increase the hold and power that the Iranian government has, now encompassing almost all areas of the citizens lives. Politicisation becomes increasingly problematic when it is related to the area of science, as is inherent in the pandemic, as it leads not only to corruption in the government’s handling, but the ability of a government to spread misinformation that deviates from, what should be, independent scientific facts.
In Iran, this was commonplace. Prior to the Coronavirus crisis, there was already high levels of mistrust between the people and the government, something only added to by the spreading of misinformation. Religious propaganda and conspiracy theories have filled the vacuum of communication between the government and the people, showing the domination of politics and government control over scientific facts. One example of this came about in April 2020, during the pandemics first wave, when the government presented their new ‘Coronavirus technology’ that could detect people with Covid from 100m away. Instead of enforcing the social distancing and mask wearing that most countries adopted, Iran brought politics into the debate, once again trying to present itself as a powerful, forward thinking country, whilst continuing to risk the lives of its citizens. This has dangerous repercussions for democracy and democratic development, which places the welfare and happiness of its citizens at the very core.
This demonstrates the problematic nature of over politicising events- it allows the government to take more control over the people, and spread misinformation, instead of scientific facts that should remain independent from politics. In turn, this has large detrimental effects on democracy, eroding it further, as not only does the government begin to control more areas of life, but the separation between science and politics is broken down, leading to a more totalitarian state.
With the end of the pandemic in sight for many, Iran seems to only be moving backwards in its return to the pre-Covid world. The pandemic has provided more and more opportunities for the government to demonstrate its autocratic power, almost eradicating any hope the country has of becoming a democracy.
Anadolu Agency. (2021) ‘Iran Announces production of Local Covid-19 Vaccine’. Available at: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/health/iran-announces-production-of-local-covid-19-vaccine/2220284 (15/05/2021)
Franz, E., Geddes B., Wright, J. (2014) ‘Autocratic Breakdown and Regime Change’. Perspectives on Politics, Volume 12, Issue 2, P. 313-331.
Lindberg, S., Luhrmann, A. (2019) ‘A Third Wave of Autocratization is Here: What is New About it?’ Democratization, Volume 26, Issue 7, P. 1095-1113.