The coronavirus epidemic has drawn global attention to all the worst aspects of the Islamic Republic. The regime’s initial response was to energetically cover up all evidence of a major outbreak, fearing it would further depress a dismal election turnout. Even as the crisis became visible to all, state media mocked the merits of quarantine, and medical workers were reprimanded for wearing masks. Such excessive secrecy undoubtedly helped the disease to spread.
Security personnel took up residence in hospitals, intimidating staff and warning them not to discuss the infection. Medical professionals report pressure to deliberately misrepresent the number of cases, while the head of Qom’s Medical Science University acknowledged on TV that the Health Ministry had banned the publication of data about the outbreak. “By turning this into a national security issue, they are putting more pressure and stress on doctors and medical teams and creating an environment of chaos and fear,” a Tehran pathologist said.
Glaring statistical discrepancies indicate that this pathologically dishonest regime is massively underreporting the scale of the outbreak. Although Iran acknowledges over 6,500 cases and nearly 200 deaths, epidemiologists say the real numbers may be over 10 times greater.
Dozens of members of parliament and government officials are infected. A former ambassador to Syria and a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have died. Yet Khamenei remains in denial, saying the virus “won’t affect the country for long and will leave.” TV footage of a visibly ill deputy health minister, not even wearing a mask to avoid coughing over people attending his own press conference, did little to inspire confidence that the regime was up to the challenge.
Clusters of infections popped up around individuals traveling from Qom to Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and elsewhere, before Iranian officials had even formally acknowledged what was happening. This fundamentally dishonest behavior delayed by several weeks the ability of nearby states to take precautions, transforming an isolated outbreak into a region-wide epidemic. Even now, Hezbollah is obstructing any prospects of canceling flights between Iran and Lebanon.
The release of 54,000 prisoners long after reports that the virus was already rampant in the prison system is just one of numerous panicky and belated measures. With the disease present in all 31 Iranian provinces, experts warn that the plan to send 300,000 militiamen to conduct tests and disinfect homes could paradoxically contribute to spreading the virus. With the closure of schools there was a sudden rush of traffic toward holiday resorts on the Caspian coast, prompting officials to threaten the use of force to halt unnecessary travel that could further spread infection.
The difficulties of purchasing health equipment under US sanctions have been exacerbated by the Iranian authorities selling their stockpiles of facemasks to China. When news of this leaked, state news agencies claimed that the masks were donated to China “as sign of long-term and traditional friendship between two countries.” With China one of Iran’s few significant remaining trading partners, Tehran continued to receive flights from Beijing, even after it became obvious that infected individuals were already arriving. In an open letter to Rouhani, Iran’s Health Minister raised concerns that a regime-connected network was profiting from the virus by monopolizing the trade in medical equipment. “How is it possible that this opportunist network announces that in 24 hours they can provide 200 million masks?” the minister inquired.
At the center of the outbreak in Iran, in the holy city of Qom, shrines that host millions of pilgrims each year remain open because of the influence of powerful clerics. Some clerics rebuked the cessation of Friday sermons, claiming that the virus couldn’t spread in holy places. One custodian asserted that his shrine mustn’t be shut down because Iranians regarded it as “a source of recovery and healing.” In videos circulating online, pilgrims make a show of licking the gold-plated fixtures at one location, having been told that this would protect them from the virus. Cleric and former vice president Mohammad-Ali Abtahi commented that pious Iranians believed that “this is the time to show their loyalty to Islam and to Qom by traveling there in its difficult days.”
This regime aspires to root its legitimacy in Islamic principles, but it instinctively relies on lies and misinformation whenever it finds itself under pressure; despite the Revolutionary Guard knowing it shot down a passenger plane in January, killing all 176 on board, for days the regime vigorously denied all involvement. The ayatollahs lied for decades about the existence of their military nuclear program, and in 2019 they re-embarked on efforts to enrich sufficient uranium for a nuclear bomb, despite Khamenei stating that such weapons violated Islam’s teachings.
The same regime that claims it doesn’t interfere in its neighbors’ affairs can’t restrain itself from frequent boasting about its control over four Arab capitals. It asserts that any support it provides is in the cause of peace and prosperity, but has amassed such large missile stockpiles in these states that future conflict becomes almost inevitable. Former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki once bragged to me that Iran was donating $1bn a year to Hezbollah; yet he was unable to respond when I noted how many other Lebanese politicians were on Tehran’s payroll, rendering an entire nation wholly beholden to a hostile foreign power.
It never ceases to amaze me how willing senior European officials are to believe Iran’s protestations of good intentions, even when the inherent contradictions of Tehran’s claims are staring them in the face — the terrorism, the militancy, the criminality, the arms proliferation, the attacks against peaceful nations.
This disgusting, throwback regime has cannibalized the nation’s wealth to wage its overseas paramilitary wars, leaving its people to starve. So we shouldn’t be surprised that on the threshold of a major pandemic, criminally negligent leaders choose to play Russian roulette with millions of its citizens’ lives.