A sanitary worker disinfects a shrine in Qom, Iran, on February 25. (AFP)

By Track Persia

March 24, 2020

The Iranian regime’s failure to combat the coronavirus has not only posed a threat to Iran’s public health but it has also risked global health as most cases tested positive with the virus in regional countries such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar upon are reported to have returned from Iran. Just over the past few hours, Iran has announced a total of 23, 049 confirmed cases, as the death toll reached 1,812 across the nation.

Conspiracy theories

The authorities’ announcement of the rising figures of the coronavirus cases in Iran came as  Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, cited in a speech in Tehran on Sunday marking the Persian new year, known as ‘Nowruz’, a conspiracy theory that the virus could be made by the US, rejecting a potential help from the US for his country to combat the pandemic. The spread of the virus in Iran also comes as the nation has been facing crushing US sanctions preventing it from selling its crude oil and accessing global financial markets.

Reliance on conspiracy theories to deflect blame for the spread of the virus across the nation and abroad has been a normal practice among Iranian leaders. The 80-year-old Supreme Leader claimed in his speech that Iran “has the capacity to deal with challenges and problems at every level”, warning that the medical aide offered by the Americans could be a way to spread the virus even further. The Ayatollah had called off his usual speech at Imam Reza shrine in the holy city of Mashhad because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Khamenei also suggested that the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through various means.’ He doubted that the medical help offered by the US  would help the Iranians to combat the virus because the US healthcare workers “ would come here to see the effect of the poison they have produced in person.”

The Supreme Leader also said that the US should focus on helping itself instead, describing the US potential help to combat the spread of coronavirus “very strange remarks”. He said that the US cannot be trusted, because of the accusations he had cited earlier.  Khamenei added that the US might send drugs to Iran disguised as humanitarian aid to speed up the spread of the virus. It is worth noting that Iran’s  commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has also pointed his finger at “Americans’ biological warfare.”

Globally, there have been a few conspiracy theories related to the spread of the coronavirus including the one cited by some Chinese officials who suggest that the US army might have brought the virus to Wuhan. This has prompted the US State Department to summon China’s ambassador to complain. Likewise, some US officials including President Trump have called the virus a “Chinese virus.”A US senator from Arkansas has alleged that the virus was a man-made Chinese bioweapon.

Back to Iran whose its hardliners since the success of the 1979 Islamic Revolution which overthrew the Shah, have been relying on conspiracy theories when it suits their interests. For example, these hardliners doubted that al-Qaeda had been behind the September 11 attacks in the US, accusing Americans of attacking the buildings themselves. Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described these attacks a “big lie” Like most Iran’s hardliners, Ahmadinejad described the Holocaust as a “myth.”

Cover-up and deception

Despite being responsible for the spread of the virus in Iran and the region, the regime has been adopting a policy of deception and cover-up to avoid admitting it has failed to confront the spread of the coronavirus which has inflicted terrible suffering on Iranians and posing threat to the region and the entire international security.

According to documents published by a whistleblower, by the end of January, the Iranian authorities were aware that the coronavirus had been spreading in Iran, yet they rejected such reports. They persecuted and threatened those who were circulating such reports on social media for spreading “rumours”.

The regime has also adopted a cover-up policy to hide the severity of the virus and to avoid being held responsible for its failure to combat the virus. It did not immediately ban travel between Iran and China. For example, Iran’s Mahan Air, which has been sanctioned by the US for its role in terrorist activities linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),  operated flights between Iran and China despite the virus was spreading dramatically in China. Furthermore, the regime sent three millions of medical facemasks to China. Weeks later, reports from Iran suggested that there was a shortage of such equipment, even among Iranian healthcare workers.

The regime also did not only inform the public when the virus was spreading, but it also did not make the public aware of the severity of its threat. Instead, it mobilised gatherings to mark the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on February 21. Consequently, these gatherings have created serious health risks to the public, as this is reflected in the high figures of death and confirmed cases linked to coronavirus.

Even after acknowledging the presence of the coronavirus, the regime downplayed and understated the severity of its threat. It also delayed preparation for the next phase of the spread of the virus. This also led to a severe shortage of facemasks and disinfectants across the nation.

The inability of quarantining most infected cities such as Qom and Tehran speeded up the spread of the virus into other cities such as  Iran’s northern cities because people who felt panic were forced to leave to less infected cities.

Dozens of Iranian senior officials are reported to have died from the virus including members of parliament and Iran’s IRGC. A number of Iranian exile-run media outlets have reported that the coronavirus claimed lives of at least 16 Iranian officials, including the senior commander of IRGC Hossein Asadollahi. Iranian state-run media, however, reported on Saturday that Asadollahi had died of “chemical injuries” which he had sustained during the eight-year-long war with Iraq (1980-88). Asadollahi headed IRGC’s 27th Mohammad Rudulullah Division for several years and was a key commander of Iranian forces which are in charge of fighting alongside Bashar Asad’s regime in Syria against rebels.

It is worth noting that the regime had previously claimed similar death cases which it had attributed to chemical injuries linked to the war with Iraq. For example, last month, Iran’s state media cited that the lawmaker Mohammad Ali Ramezani had died of chemical injuries sustained from the eight-year-long war with Iraq. However, weeks later, he was reported to have been died of coronavirus.

Everyone may recall the press conference attended by Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi who mocked quarantines as a relic of the era of pre-World War I. During the conference, Harirchi was seen sweating heavily during the conference. The next day, however, he said he had been diagnosed positive for the coronavirus.

Commitment to religious ideology

The regime could have prevented the deaths of dozens of coronavirus victims if it did not oppose calls to quarantine the city of Qom, a centre of hawzas (Shiite religious seminaries) and pilgrimage destination for a large number of the Shia in the world. It was only on February 19 when the virus had already spread that the regime acknowledged there were two death cases in Qom.

Failing to quarantine the city and also demonstrating a rigid commitment to its Shiite religious ideology, the regime helped the virus to spread very quickly. For example, representative of Khamenei in Qom Mohammed Saeedi and custodian of the Masumeh Shrine opposed all efforts to shut down Qom and its religious places, describing them “places of healing”.

Lack of education and the regime’s strict policy on freedom have also contributed to spreading myths linked to preventing infections with the virus. According to Iranian officials, at least 194 Iranians have died and 1,000 have been poisoned since March 6 because they consumed bootleg alcohol. These people seemed they believed in rumours on social media that claim alcohol could cure coronavirus. More than 17 people have been arrested as part of investigation, according to Iranian prosecutors. Iranian law bans selling, producing, buying and consuming alcoholic beverages among Iranian Muslims. The punishment of those who breach this law may include imprisonment and/or lashes. The law has forced some Iranians to consume bootleg alcohol thinking they will not be infected with the coronavirus.

Sugar-coating the reality  

To ease public panic and to prevent more criticism over being slow to respond to the spread of the virus, Iranian leaders have recently struck an upbeat tone when marking the Nowruz by vowing to overcome the pandemic. For example, at his Nowruz speech, Khamenei described the new year “the year of leaps in production” in Iran’s economy, despite the fact that the Iranian economy has been strongly affected by the heavy US sanctions since the President Trump administration withdrew from Iran 2015 nuclear deal which had also been agreed with other world powers.

On his part, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani marked Nowruz by promising a better economy saying that: “We will put the coronavirus behind us soon with unity, hard work and with cooperation,” assuring that his government would prioritise health in the coming year and it had stockpiled basic supplies.

The regime’s initial practice of downplaying the threat of the virus was aimed to mobilise the public to participate in the parliamentary elections held last month. However, when the virus had already spread at an unprecedented level, the regime responded too slowly. Rouhani defended his government by seeking to highlight what he viewed as achievements of his government. He considered the downing of a US drone and striking a base hosting American troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iran’s Qods Force Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad early January as an example of his government’s achievements.

Rouhani also praised what he viewed as Iran’s success in withstanding US sanctions imposed on his country’s vital oil sector, boasting that “we have not been defeated… We have emerged victorious from this test. We soon will overcome the COVID-19 outbreath too.”

On his part, and following heavy criticism over his regime’s slow response to the outbreak of the virus, Khamenei has recently issued a fatwa (religious edict) that prohibits all unnecessary travel. The regime later has restricted travel between Iranian cities, closing major religious shrines. These restrictions, however, are seen too little, too late.

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.