Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s Deputy health minister and head of its coronavirus outbreak task force, was sweating during a press conference on the virus on Monday. (GETTY)

By Track Perisa

February 27, 2020

The outbreak of the newest strain of coronavirus which is officially known as COVID-19 originated in China in December 2019, where it has reportedly killed more than 2500 people so far. However, Iran has become a point of fear and caused panic among the Iranians and Iran’s neighbouring and regional countries since coronavirus was reported to have caused deaths dozens of people in Iran.

Iran has been reported to have the highest number of deaths from the coronavirus outside China. According to Iran’s Health Ministry’s statement on Tuesday, two more people who had been infected have died taking the toll of deaths to 16.

A spokesman of Iran’s Health Ministry Kianoush Jahanpour said that 95 people had contracted the infection in the country, urging Iranians to stay at home. On Monday, Iranian officials said about 95 cases were suspected, dismissing claims that 50 people had died in the city of Qom, which confirmed its first two deaths last week and has become the epicentre of the coronavirus in Iran and the region. The city which is usually bustle with Shi’i clerics and foreign students pursuing their Shi’i religious studies has almost been deserted.  However, experts say the number of people infected with coronavirus in Iran could be as high as 1,500.

Beyond mainland of China and Iran, coronavirus has jumped to more than 30 countries and territories, including Italy, South Korea, US. UK, France, Spain, Russia, Singapore and India..

Iran’s neighbouring and regional countries are the most concerned, this is reflected in their decisions to impose new measures to prevent the spread of the decease among their citizens such as largely shutting their borders and suspending pilgrimage routes to Iran.

In Iraq, which has the longest borders with Iran, a family of four have tested positive for the coronavirus.  The family returned home from a visit to Iran. The four cases have been confirmed in the northern city of Kirkuk, bringing the toll of people infected to five.  On Monday the first reported case was an Iranian national studying at one of the Shi’i religious seminaries in Najaf. The announcement of the confirmed case of the Iranian student in the country has caused great concern among Iraqis. For example, radical Shi’i cleric Moqtada al-Sadr suspended a call for his followers to hold large demonstrations for health safety.

Arab Gulf states have also reported several cases of coronavirus, all of them are linked to Iran. Over the past two days, Bahrain alone confirmed 15 cases, including six Saudi women, have tested positive after returning from a visit to Iran via Dubai and Sharjah.

Why Iranians are particular concerned

The panic among Iranians about the outbreak of the coronavirus can be attributed to the distrust in the Iranian regime.  The announcement of the first case one day before  21st February parliamentary elections and the Iranian regime’s attempt of a cover-up following the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane near Tehran on 8th January that caused the deaths of all of its 176 passengers, including many Iranians, has further tarnished the regime’s public image.  Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had first denied responsibility of carrying out the attacks which happened two hours after IRGC had attacked two Iraqi bases hosting US troops. IRGC only admitted it by saying it was a human error.

In the meantime, medical staff in Iran and health specialists are too afraid to speak out about the outbreak of the virus fearing of retaliation from the regime. However, some of them have spoken on condition of anonymity saying that the authorities do not help reducing public panic if they keep covering up the truth about those who have been confirmed positive for the virus and not speaking about the extent of its risks.

The emergence of coronavirus in Iran, whose large numbers of its people have already been hard hit by the sanctions re-imposed by the Trump administration since 2018, has sown panic among Iranians. They want to know the true number of confirmed cases. They feel they are left in the dark regarding the spread of the virus and its severity.

Attempts from world health organisations to rebuff any misconceptions about the virus does not seem to ease the panic of Iranians because of the conflicting claims they receive from the Iranian officials and politicians.

For example, Mr Amirabadi, MP from Qom, claimed that around 50 people have died in the city. In the same time, Iranian Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi dismissed these claims by saying that such allegations could not be proven. However, shortly after he was seen excessively sweating on TV during a press conference, Harirchi has tested positive for the coronavirus himself and now he has been under quarantine.

Another MP from Qom, Alireza Zakani, who has recently been elected the last parliamentary elections said on Monday that 42 people had died in Qom over the past two weeks, nine of them had tested positive for the coronavirus. Such conflicting statements from senior officials have added more confusion for Iranian people.

Adding insult to injury, regime’s hardliners they do not seem taking the outbreak of the coronavirus seriously. Some of them even seem they still do not understand how deadly and fatally the epidemic is.

Qom, the most religious Iranian city, where majority Iranian clerics and ayatollahs are based, has the largest Shi’i seminaries which attract a large number of foreigner students from around the world. Its people are particular concerned because the toll given by Iranian officials about the confirmed cases and those who have died is conflicting. A large number of residents of Qom remain in their houses, and they wear masks if they need to leave their houses. Pharmacies are running out of masks because they are illegally hoarding these masks to resell them at higher prices to make profits. This has caused a wave of huge anger among residents who blame that on Iranian government which they accuse of being corrupt and careless.

However, the carelessness of some clerical figures in Qom has left Iranian in shock. For example, the chairman of shrine Fatima Masoumeh has refused to close the site, despite the government has given orders to close it.  On his part, Mohammad Saeedi, the representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Qom urged  Iranians to visit the city’s main shrine the ‘Fatima Masumeh’ if they wish to be healed. He said that the shrine “should be open, and the people should strongly attend.” At the same time, IRGC’s owned Mahan Air is reported to have continued its flights to four Chines cities, the epicentre of the epidemic, in the past three weeks, according to Flightradar24 which collects information on flights across the world.

How bad is corona outbreak on Iranian economy?

This comes as the outbreak of coronavirus hit hard the already ailing Iranian economy. The Iranians now fear that the outbreak of the epidemic in their country could hugely impact trade and tourism sectors, which became the source of Iran’s most-needed foreign currency after the US sanctions crippled Iranian economy after in 2018 the Trump administration pulled off the 2015 nuclear deal.

The period between March 21 and June 21, 2019, more than three million tourists visited the country, many of them were pilgrims from neighbouring Iraq and other countries such as Kuwait and Lebanon who headed to the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad to visit holy shrines.

Iran’s biggest non-oil export market is China which is already being affected by the coronavirus crisis. This will very likely to be reflected in China’s imports of non-oil goods from Iran.

Additionally, after Iran’s neighbouring countries confirmed new cases of the virus, all linked to Iran, these countries such as Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Gulf Arab states, have announced the closure of their borders with Iran and the cancellation of all flights, while Oman’s Khasab port halted imports and exports with Iran. Their decision they have stopped trade with Iran and banned their citizens to visit Iran’s pilgrimage sites will have huge impacts on Iran’s declining economy.

Iraq, for instance, is Iran’s second-biggest export market after China. Iran’s 22 per cent of non-oil exports are headed to neighbouring Iraq.  Millions of Iranians visit the Shi’i sites each year and they have been exempted from visa fees by Iraq’s Shi’i government whose most of Shi’i officials have close ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Responding to public pressure, the Iraqi government said on Tuesday that it banned all travels from Iran, China, Italy, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Japan, exempting returning Iraqi citizens and diplomats. The Iraqi government’s call on Iraqis to avoid public gatherings have raised concern among Iraqi young protestors who have been taken to the streets since early October last year to protests against government corruption and the criminal activities carried out by Iran’s militia proxies in Iraq. They fear that the Iraqi security forces which are infiltrated by these pro- Iran Shi’i militias which they accused of killing and injuring thousands of them, will take the government’s call as a pretext to increase their criminal activities against them.

Turkey is Iran’s gateway to Europe and Iran’s third-biggest export market. Iranian export to Europe through Turkey was already affected by the US sanctions in 2018. Moreover, the UAE comes the fourth and Afghanistan comes the fifth of Iran’s biggest export market.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.