Following the shooting down of a Ukrainian aircraft in early January, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) faced a legitimacy crisis in the eyes of the Iranian public.
Though the mainstream assumption is that the Iranian military in general does not care about public opinion, various activities suggest otherwise. Both the IRGC and the regular Army (Artesh) wish to demonstrate that they are key to the fight against the pandemic.
On 17 April, Army Day, the entire presentation was in tune with the theme of combating Covid-19. The Army displayed its production of face masks and other health-related items. The commander in chief even offered a military salute to a nurse as a representative of medical staff at the forefront of the campaign. Both military organisations presented their affiliated hospitals, and both have also erected field hospitals to support the health campaign.
Furthermore, the IRGC would like to show how useful its regional network can be in tackling national problems. Apart from its responsibility for security and preventing supply disruptions, numerous other initiatives are being undertaken.
IRGC claims to have mobilised 600,000 members and volunteers to fight the pandemic though activities such as disinfecting campaigns, educational programs, and logistics committees that are involved in the manufacture of masks, hand sanitizer, and other supplies. They have also organised food production and free distribution to low-income families across the country.
Boosting the Basij
Basij members across the country are also conducting local campaigns to produce masks and other products needed by the medical community.
To understand the significance of these efforts, one should bear in mind that prior to this crisis, the Basij was seen as a paramilitary force that clamped down on protest whenever required. The Basij was in fact always intended to be a local paramilitary force involved in community issues, sometimes as an extension of central authority.
For example, the force played a significant role in national vaccination campaigns in the 1990s. The pandemic has thus presented an opportunity to remind the population of the value of the Basij as a local or even neighbourhood force.
A propaganda war
While the main thrust of these various activities is to show solidarity and competence, one backfired. Social media made a joke of an alleged ‘virus detector’ that the ‘IRGC scientists’ had invented. Despite that misstep, the overall message is clear.
A number of billboards have been erected making parallels between the sacrifices made during the Iran–Iraq war and the sacrifices that doctors and nurses are making now in order to fight the pandemic. Media messages depict the work of Hashd al-Shaabi forces from Iraq in supporting initiatives in Iran. This type of communication goes down well with regional audiences around the ‘axis of resistance.’
IRGC is engaged in a propaganda war on multiple levels and is using the crisis to boost its position for target audiences inside and outside Iran. Some observers expect that the Corps will try to shore up sentiments of Shi’a unity, especially as the pandemic is taking lives and livelihoods across the region.