By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
Reality continues to chip away at the Iranian regime’s official narrative regarding coronavirus. Ever since Tehran began its efforts to paint a rosy picture of its response to the pandemic, it has faced pushback from medical professionals and ordinary citizens, whose eyewitness accounts have largely been assembled and analyzed by the country’s leading democratic opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
More recently, the gulf between official narratives and genuine information has grown so vast that even some government officials have found it difficult to keep up the act. While the Health Ministry’s public statements continue to place the death toll at fewer than 18,000, out of a total caseload of roughly a quarter of a million, certain members of the Ministry’s coronavirus response task force have made their own statements to independent media, which reinforced doubts about these figures.
At the beginning of August, the BBC apparently obtained an anonymous data leak from within the Ministry and was able to report that some health officials believed the total number of cases to be about twice as high as had been reported. Moreover, on Sunday, Iran’s Jahan-e Sanat newspaper went much further, publishing an interview with former task force member Mohammadreza Mahboubfar in which he said that “the figures announced by the officials on coronavirus cases and deaths account for only five percent of the country’s real tolls.”
This disclosure prompted the government to promptly shut down the paper, even though the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani had speculated in mid-July that upwards of 25 million Iranians might have become infected with the novel coronavirus. Iran’s total population is approximately 83 million and Rouhani’s remarks acknowledges that the regime’s de facto coronavirus strategy is to embrace the concept of herd immunity, with all the attendant deaths that entails.
Tehran briefly imposed a lockdown on Iranian society when the outbreak hit an early peak. But it only kept that lockdown in force through the Iranian New Year holiday, Nowruz. The economy began reopening in mid-April in spite that new cases were spiking again. Even the official estimates have presented a cascade of bad news since then, but authorities have never seriously deviated from the path of promoting economic growth at the expense of all else, including human life.
This was, after all, the strategy that regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei laid out in his Nowruz address to the nation. As the ultimate authority in all matters of policy, Khamenei declared the current Iranian calendar year to be “the year of boosting production” and this guaranteed that Rouhani and other officials would remain committed to the reopening no matter what else happened.
The regime had apparently been setting the stage for his strategy well in advance, specifically by spreading misinformation in order to suppress public concern about the virus. Like the true infection rates and death toll, this fact was revealed long ago by different Iranian activists and by the MEK and has been confirmed by frustrated health officials in more recent days.
When Iran’s lockdown began to be lifted, the outbreak had only been officially recognized for two months. In reality, it had been active for twice as long, through periods of widespread public activity. Naturally, this led to levels of transmission that made the brief, weakly-enforced lockdown completely ineffectual. Obviously, it is quite impossible that any major decision-makers were unaware of this fact, given that the regime had actively pushed for citizens to gather in shared spaces at times when only the government was aware of the threat to public health.
This was something that Mohammadreza Mahboubfar confirmed in the Sunday newspaper interview. “There was no transparent flow of information,” he said. “The government only provided engineered figures… over concerns about the election and the commemorations of the revolution anniversary.” Both of these events took place in February and both were viewed by regime authorities as crucial opportunities to counter the perception that their hold on power was weakening. These perceptions were well-founded, as Iran had been the site of a nationwide anti-government uprising in each of the previous two years.
The first of these, in January 2018, led the Supreme Leader to acknowledge that the Iranian Resistance movement posed a much more serious threat to the theocratic system than the regime had been willing to acknowledge before. The other, in November 2019, demonstrated the extent to which that regime was prepared to sacrifice human lives for its political aims. As protests erupted spontaneously in roughly 200 cities and towns, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responded with gunfire, killing an estimated 1,500 people.
Understanding that this crackdown would only fuel more public resentment over the long term, Tehran was desperate to project an image of strength and legitimacy. At the same time, the regime was eager to avoid the appearance of new social problems which might provide the people with additional reasons to condemn the current leadership. Simply acknowledging the coronavirus’ existence would have further weakened the mullahs’ hold on power, especially if it undermines carefully manufactured symbols of public support.
Fortunately, the turnout in February’s parliamentary elections reached a record low anyway. Unfortunately, that participation still constituted hundreds of thousands of individuals, with no measures in place to limit the spread of disease, but the greater threat to public health came from the anniversary of the revolution, earlier in the month. Even in absence of much genuine public support, the regime made every effort to bring people into the streets of major cities for the benefit of state television cameras. Attendance was mandatory for many government employees, while poor Iranians were given financial incentives to help pad the numbers.
Independent estimates of the infection rate and death toll have always been easy to explain in terms of the long-term outcome from these events. Official estimates seemed particularly absurd in light of the start date for the outbreak, which the MEK has long reported as being no later than the last week of January. This was corroborated by leaked documents from Iran’s National Emergency Organization, but now it appears that those documents did not include the earliest cases. According to Mahboubfar, Covid-19 was already present in Iran by December, sparking two solid months of outright denial from regime authorities.
Over the past several months, that denial has morphed into more carefully managed disinformation, but this has hardly made the regime’s strategy any less deadly. Even the regime’s official statistics show that August began with the greatest surge in new coronavirus cases in nearly a month and that daily death tolls are routinely in the triple digits, but these figures yet remain wildly out of step with reality. The latest reports from the MEK indicate that the overall death toll since the end of last year has now surpassed 85,500, and that its growth shows no sign of slowing down.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)