The Islamist regime in Tehran has set off a coronavirus bomb on its own territory. The official death toll leaped to 611 on Friday, yet other assessments indicate that close to 2,000 Iranians may already have died. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his surrogates have blamed the United States and its sanctions for the crisis, while the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) pointed his finger at “Americans’ biological warfare.” Yet responsibility for the epidemic in Iran belongs above all to the regime, whose deception and failure is inflicting terrible suffering on the people of Iran while posing a new kind of threat to international security.
Authorities knew that coronavirus had arrived in Iran by the end of January, according to documents published by one whistleblower. Similar reports had surfaced even earlier on social media, yet the regime rejected such claims, persecuted their sources, and threatened to flog and imprison those who spread rumors.
The regime should have immediately banned travel between Iran and China. Yet in late February, Mahan Air – a carrier the US sanctioned for its role in IRGC terrorism – was still operating flights to China. While hiding the news of the first infections from Iranians, the ruling clerics sent 3 million facemasks to China. State media reported on Beijing’s gratitude and said Tehran was ready to send even more medical aid. Now there is a shortage of masks in Iran, even among healthcare workers. Responsible leaders would have prepared the healthcare system for an emergency while mobilizing manufacturers to mass produce masks and other medical goods.
The regime should have informed the public immediately of the threat to its health yet chose to put politics first by trying to assemble massive crowds to chant “Death to America” on the 41st anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 11. An even greater priority was to facilitate high turnout for parliamentary elections on February 21. Turnout was the lowest ever, since the public has become wise to the charade of voting, yet enough people congregated at polling places to create health risks the regime could easily have prevented.
The city of Qom, a center of learning and pilgrimage destination for Shia Muslims, became the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, though the origins of the virus in Qom are not quite clear. The presence of hundreds of Chinese clerics in the seminaries was one possible reason. On February 19, the regime acknowledged two deaths from coronavirus in Qom, its first admission of fatalities, yet it opposed calls to quarantine the city.
Five days later, at a press conference that has come to symbolize the regime’s exercise in denial, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi mocked quarantines as a relic of the pre-World War I era, comparing them “to the plague, cholera, stuff like that.” Harirchi sweated heavily during his remarks and admitted the next day that he himself had coronavirus. Dozens of senior officials now have the virus or have died from the virus, including four members of the cabinet.
The failure to quarantine Qom helped the virus to spread while demonstrating the leadership’s rigid commitment to its religious ideology. Seyed Mohammad Saeedi, the representative in Qom of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and custodian of the Masumeh Shrine, said the city and its religious centers were a “place of healing” and opposed any effort to shut them down. Large gatherings for religious services continued.
Even after it acknowledged the presence of coronavirus, the regime downplayed its deadliness. The regime used state broadcasting to understate the depth or outbreak and the severity of the threat. In one segment, a television host compared the virus to a cold and claimed she probably had caught it two weeks earlier but fully recovered.
The combination of denial and downplaying prevented preparation for what was to come. Hospitals lacked the necessary protective equipment, and the public faced a shortage of disinfectants and alcohol, as well as the aforementioned masks. Unlike China, Tehran failed to close non-essential businesses across the country and quarantine Qom and other infected cities and regions. Instead, Iranians from infection centers like Qom and Tehran have fled to northern provinces like Mazandaran and Gilan, leading to mass outbreaks and even horrific reports of mass burials of infected victims in cities like Rasht.
Most of the regime’s efforts to deflect blame from its own malpractice involve the usual reliance on conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. Neither the US nor “Zionist elements” are engaged in bio-terrorism. Yet Western media often say the suggestion that US sanctions prevented a more effective response to the crisis is credible. Our research shows, however, that sanctions have not had any clear effect on Iranian pharmaceutical imports, despite causing an overall plunge in foreign trade. The American and Swiss governments even set up a special financial channel to facilitate commerce in food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods. Iran also rejected American offers of medical assistance.
The international community should awaken to the Islamic Republic as a critical public health and safety threat. The regime in Iran isn’t just dangerous because of its nuclear program; its failure to react to coronavirus has risked global public health. Yet much of the world, especially Europe, sees the issue of Iran through the false and binary choice of “war” or “engagement.” The coronavirus pandemic in Iran is yet another warning call to a world mostly asleep to the real threat of the Islamic Republic.
Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior Iran and financial economics advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Saeed on Twitter @SGhasseminejad.
Alireza Nader is a Senior Fellow at FDD.