The Iranian regime covered up news of the coronavirus for three days to avoid impacting turnout at parliamentary elections, documents obtained by an Iranian exile-run news site show.
The regime worried that low turnout in the elections would exacerbate a legitimacy crisis that had already been sparked by mass protests in the country.
While Iranian authorities insist they began taking the necessary steps as soon as they were alerted of the outbreak, a letter from Gholamreza Jalali, the head of Iran's Civil Defense Organization, dated February 19 shows otherwise.
It instructs the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and the Minister of Interior to implement measures including extra training for medical personnel, reassuring the public and preventing travel. Provision 15 contained the phrase:
“Intensified control of public gatherings and an emphasis on public health (after the elections),” according to the document, first published by Iranwire.
An economy already strained by heavy spending on foreign militias and proxy networks was further pressured with US sanctions targeting Iranian oil sales. Last November, the regime hiked the price of fuel, triggering massive popular protests and the government killed at least 1,500 people to quell the unrest.
The Iranian regime also stepped up its attacks on western interests in the Middle East. On December 27, it launched ballistic missiles against an army base housing US troops in neighboring Iraq, killing one US contractor and injuring others.
The United States retaliated by assassinating the military general leading Iran’s international operations Qassem Soleimani on January 3.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps then mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner, killing all 176 on board a week later.
So turnout in parliamentary elections on February 21 was seen as a critical indicator of legitimacy for the revolutionary Islamic regime as it celebrated its 41st anniversary in power.
Iran's first two coronavirus deaths were announced on February 19 in the Shia holy city of Qom.
The country held its 11th parliamentary election two days later on February 21, which registered the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the low turnout on the “negative propaganda” about coronavirus by Iran’s enemies.
“This negative propaganda about the virus began a couple of months ago and grew larger ahead of the election,” Khamenei said on February 23. “Their media did not miss the tiniest opportunity for dissuading Iranian voters and resorting to the excuse of disease and the virus,” he said.
At the time, there were numerous unconfirmed reports that the Islamic Republic may have deliberately covered up the spread of coronavirus for weeks to boost its legitimacy by encouraging large turnouts for state-organized rallies for the 41st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution on February 11 and the parliamentary election over a week later.
Jalali, who is a general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), denied on state TV on February 13 that coronavirus had spread to Iran, or that authorities were covering up an outbreak.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has also denied any delays in announcing the spread of coronavirus to the country.
“We realized coronavirus was in Iran on February 19, and the people were informed of that on the same day … We had an election on February 21, and we could have waited until after the election to inform the public, but we did not … We were honest with people,” Rouhani said on Wednesday.
However, deputy health minister Reza Malekzadeh said on March 13 that the government had “some delay in informing the public” about the spread of coronavirus to Iran. Malekzadeh did not say exactly how many days Iran delayed announcing the spread of the virus to the country.
As of Monday, 1,934 in Iran have died from coronavirus, and there are 24,811 confirmed cases.