The Iranian regime's disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic could ultimately pose a greater threat to the survival of the ayatollahs than the impact of Washington's uncompromising sanctions regime. Pictured: Firefighters disinfect a street in Tehran, Iran on March 13, 2020. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)
The Iranian regime's disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic could ultimately pose a greater threat to the survival of the ayatollahs than the impact of Washington's uncompromising sanctions regime.
Up until the coronavirus outbreak, the main challenge facing the clerical regime was the devastating impact the Trump administration's hard-hitting sanctions were having on the Iranian economy.
With the economy shrinking at the rate of 10 percent a year, and unemployment hovering around the 20 percent mark, the regime was under increasing pressure from anti-government protesters angry at the regime's mishandling of the economy.
Opposition groups claimed that more than 600 protesters were killed as regime hardliners tried to crush opposition to the regime.
Now the anger of ordinary Iranians at the regime's economic mismanagement has been replaced by outrage at the clerics' attempts to conceal the true extent of Iran's coronavirus outbreak, which has spread to all of the country's 31 provinces.
In its first public reference to the outbreak on February 19, the regime told people not to worry about the virus. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Iran's "enemies" of exaggerating the threat.
A week later, as the number of cases and deaths surged, President Hassan Rouhani echoed the Supreme Leader's words and warned against the "conspiracies and fear-mongering of our enemies".
He said these were designed to bring the country to a standstill and urged Iranians to continue their everyday lives. More recently, state-controlled Iranian television channels have claimed the coronavirus could be a US-manufactured "bio-weapon", with the Supreme Leader tweeting about a "biological attack".
Consequently, as Iran's ruling elite have been in a state of denial about the scale of the outbreak, the epidemic has spread to the extent that Iran is currently suffering from the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East. The latest official death toll by Iran's health ministry claims there had been 2,898 fatalities at the end of March, with more than 44,000 confirmed cases.
Other reports say the death toll could be much higher, and claim 4,762 people had died as of March 31.
The Iranian regime's failure to grasp the significance of the outbreak in its own country has led 16 other countries in the region to claim that their own outbreaks originated in Iran. These include Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates.
The scale of the coronavirus crisis in Iran has resulted in increased tensions between the hardline supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei and the government of President Rouhani.
While the hardliners have flatly rejected offers of assistance from Washington to combat the outbreak, Mr Rouhani has adopted a more pragmatic approach which has resulted in Tehran receiving its first shipments of humanitarian aid from Britain, Germany and France -- the so-called E3, which are also the European signatories to the controversial nuclear deal with Iran.
The European aid package, which is said to be worth $548,000, is the first transaction conducted under a trade mechanism known as the Instrument In Support Of Trade Exchanges, or Instex, which has been set up by the Europeans to enable them to barter humanitarian goods and food with Tehran after the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal
Britain, Germany and France said last month they had offered a 5 million-euro ($5.5 million) package to Iran to help fight the coronavirus outbreak, and are also planning to send medical material, including equipment for laboratory tests, protective body suits and gloves.
Tehran would be well-advised, though, not to regard the aid delivery as raising the prospect of the sanctions being eased. The new trading arrangements set up by Europe have been designed not to breach the Trump administration's policy of applying "maximum pressure" against Iran, so that Instex can only be used for the delivery of humanitarian aid and food.
This means that, while the aid delivery might help to fight the coronavirus pandemic, it will do little to alleviate the pressure on Iran's incompetent, and increasingly unpopular, leadership.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph's Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.