In a research paper published on April 2, 2020, in the semi-official ISNA news agency, four epidemiologists from the University of Tehran said that there was a coherent strategy ‍ahead which the Iranian regime would be using to fight the new coronavirus. We were told that the government would be controlling the epidemic by cultivating herd immunity, despite data provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) at the time which showed that the number of cases would likely continue to rise dramatically, before herd immunity could be reached.

Iran may indeed acquire herd immunity, but only by experiencing very high numbers of infections and much suffering among ordinary people. Even the state-run newspaper, Hamshahri, warned on April 13 that President Hassan Rouhani’s decision to opt for the herd immunity strategy would affect millions of people. And according to Iraj Haririchi, Deputy Minister of Health, Iran is still only half-way through the course of the infection, and we have to expect “the worst to happen”.

There are various estimates concerning how widespread Covid-19 may be in Iran at the moment. The regime’s Covid-19 task forces continue to be upbeat about the prospect of herd immunity being reached.

Minoo Mohraz, a member of Iran’s National Coronavirus Combat Taskforce (NCCT), told Khabar Fori website on June 6: “Currently, about 20% (about 18 million) of the total population of our country are infected with this disease, and according to the WHO, around 40-70% of the total population will be infected”.

Masoud Mardani, another member of the NCCT, recently referred to the epidemiological goals of serology tests, telling ISNA on July 4: “This test was performed randomly, and we found that 18 million Iranians, or about 20% of the country’s population, have been infected so far”.

Yet if this is truly the case, then the official figures provided by the regime for the number of deaths looks increasingly suspicious. The WHO has calculated that the mortality rate of the coronavirus is around 3.4%. If this estimate by the NCCT is correct, the real number of victims in Iran would exceed half a million, even while the regime puts the official death toll at only about 12,000. That would be quite an extraordinary, and tragic.

The truth is that, with a regime which controls the data so carefully, we are unlikely ever to know the precise impact of the government’s misguided strategy. But it seems to be far higher than the government in Tehran is letting on.

Following the regime’s decision to adopt the herd immunity strategy, the Iranian Association of Immunology and Allergy sent a letter to Rouhani to warn him that 70% of the population being infected means endangering the lives of nearly 2 million, and where a significant proportion of the victims will be part of the national health and medical staff.

Additionally, they claimed that achieving herd immunity would be a mirage, because we do not yet know for how long immunity against this coronavirus lasts, or whether it will mutate in the process of spreading. Yet the regime’s dangerous game continues.

If the regime had chosen the total quarantine approach to fighting the disease, it could have focused on providing financial assistance to at least 30 million poor and underprivileged households that had lost their job and income. Yet despite having rich resources under the direct control of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the government has neglected to alleviate the plight of the poor.

So why does the regime persist with a strategy which has had such a devastating impact on Iranian people?

The regime has been hit hard by the depreciation of oil prices since the beginning of the crisis. But this is not the entire picture, and nor is it an excuse. Iran’s government continues to spend on costly foreign entanglements and armed militias across the region, while those at home struggle with failing utilities and a crashing economy.

The Iranian regime doubtless sees some political benefits in the herd immunity strategy, too. By diverting society’s attention towards the crisis caused by coronavirus, the regime probably hopes to gain some respite from the protests which repeatedly rocked Iran before the pandemic, most recently during January 2020 in cities across the country.

Yet even the regime knows this to be dangerous. There are voices within the government who are increasingly concerned by the harsh impact of the pandemic on ordinary Iranians.

Saeed Namaki, the Iranian Health Minister, told the Islamic Republic News Agency on July 8: “We read the security reports. It is a serious issue that people are reaching a point of an eruption from poverty. The president and the security forces must think about (people’s) livelihoods to prevent an eruption”.

In a moment of honesty, he confirmed the failure and irony of a strategy that the regime probably assumed would prevent an uprising from taking place.

His words were echoed in the state-approved newspapers. In addition, Eqtesad-e Saramad newspaper on July 5 also warned of unrest if the regime doesn’t act fast to remedy popular distress:

“The country is going through strange days; Strange outbursts in everything and all walks of life. What is so strange is that even the healthiest minds sometimes get confused and are asking what is happening? Why does it seem as if everything is out of control?”.

The newspaper Mostagel also reflected these concerns about an uprising:

“What Iran is worried about in the summer of 2020 is urban riots. Given the widespread poverty, the outbreak of the coronavirus, and the deprived poor population for which no solution has been found to their problem, we should be concerned”.

There is something rumbling below the surface in Iran. It is too soon to tell what form this popular frustration will take. But we should not write off further outbursts of unrest directed at the regime responsible for this disastrous response to the country’s epidemic. Disenchantment continues to build in the wake of this devastating global health crisis – and the extraordinary year of 2020 is not over yet.

Hamid Enayat is an independent analyst of Iranian politics based in Europe.