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Iran incites against Doctors Without Borders amid coronavirus crisis

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif continues to say one thing in English on social media, while the regime in Tehran spreads conspiracies and incitement against aid organizations that seek to help Iran combat coronavirus.

Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) sent a team and temporary hospital unit to Iran on March 22. But the regime spread claims that it was spying and tried to expel it.

According to MSF, the organization sent a 50-bed inflatable hospital and an emergency team of nine people to Isfahan, the second-worst affected province in the Islamic Republic. The team and treatment unit came from Bordeaux, France.

“Iran is by far the hardest-hit country in the region,” said an MSF representative in Iran. “We hope our assistance will relieve at least some of the pressure on the local health system.

MSF said it was already present in the country and offered to help with the most severe cases of coronavirus. It has helped Iran for years, including in 1991 and 2003 after an earthquake and in 2019 to help with flooding.

Zarif and pro-Iran lobbies in Western countries have adopted the narrative that Iran needs urgent help to fight coronavirus, and the only way to do this is to end US sanctions.

However, as the case of MSF shows, it is not just about ending sanctions. Even when support for Iran arrives, it is met with incitement and conspiracies in local Farsi media.

Iran’s English-language media propaganda sites, such as Press TV, try not to report the comments of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. But in Iran, he and the IRGC have told locals the coronavirus is a US “biological weapon,” and it was designed in the West specifically to harm Iranians.

Similarly, when it comes to MSF, Iranians linked to the IRGC have reportedly rejected their aid, as well as the plan to build the temporary hospital. A Health Ministry adviser wrote on Twitter: “Thanks to Doctors Without Borders, but the need to set up hospital beds – by implementing a national mobilization plan against coronavirus using the full capacity of the armed forces – is ongoing, there is no need for foreign forces.”

France was involved in “hostility and hatred” against Iran, which was another reason to reject the experts, the ayatollah’s representative told media.

Member of Parliament Mahmoud Sadeghi, who has been critical of Tehran’s lack of response to the pandemic in the past, noted on Twitter that the extremist opposition to MSF was not due to their conspiracies about a “biological weapon.” The real story is that the IRGC wants to show it does not need assistance. A video from the Basij militia showed them distributing protective masks, arguing it is more than MSF can do.

An analysis of social-media response in Iran over the last 24 hours showed that many accounts linked to the regime have a certain narrative. The regime wants aid to be controlled by its own organs, to both profit from it and make it appear that they brought the aid, not foreigners.

MEANWHILE, an orchestrated campaign from Khamenei’s office and the IRGC has spread rumors that the doctors are “spies.” One account shows a doctored photo of a French doctor, and underneath it he wears an American and Israeli uniform. “You have no place in Iran,” the user says.

Others claimed it was odd that the MSF came to Iran and not Italy. One writer said the doctors would bring disease. Critics of the regime argue that the Iranian government has shown it merely wants money from abroad, not medical support. Others said the ruthless government was denying them aid.

The overall picture is a government in Tehran that says one thing to foreign media in English and says something else at home. Zarif says the Iranian people appreciate the growing global campaign that calls for lifting sanctions to fight coronavirus. Meanwhile, Iran is accepting some aid from UNHCR and also about €20 million.

The fate of the MSF mission to help Iran is unclear. Iran released a French researcher in an apparent prisoner swap earlier this week. Iran often takes Westerners hostage, including academics and others, as part of its attempt to get concessions from other governments.

Tehran is usually successful at this tactic: The more people the regime imprisons illegally, the more it appears to get support in Europe and some other places.

When it comes to coronavirus, the regime openly says one thing at home, arguing that the virus is a biological weapon and a conspiracy, and says something else abroad, suggesting that it needs dire help.

It did not claim to need the same help in mid-February, when it denied the virus existed so it could get people out to the polls, even while some leading Iranians were already getting sick in Qom and Tehran.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, the regime has sought to manipulate the suffering for its own ends.