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“It’s Always Been This Way”: Disinformation Worsens Iran’s Coronavirus Outbreak

Iran, Qom- Coronavirus outbreak
Iran, Qom- Coronavirus outbreak

Amid a public health crisis, the regime’s disinformation can literally kill people. In Iran, a regime campaign of disinformation may have already helped to kill as many as 3,650 people, according to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK).

Of course, in keeping with that campaign, the Iranian regime has acknowledged only a fraction of those deaths. 

As of Thursday, the Iranian regime Health Ministry had confirmed about 360 fatalities affiliated with coronavirus pandemic. This represents a dramatic increase from the single-digit numbers that the regime was insisting upon as recently as three weeks earlier. But even though official estimates have accelerated over that period, they appear to be nowhere near catching up to the reality of the situation. 

The MEK supporters, Iranian doctors and nurses, along with a variety of civil activists, have been doing what they can to share more accurate data about the scale of Iran’s coronavirus outbreak and the number of fatal incidents. By the end of February, hospital admission records were already pointing to the likelihood of tens of thousands of infections spanning the country. And on Sunday the National Council of Resistance of Iran published a report that detailed the regime’s bungled response and estimated a death toll of about 3,000 people, based on the reports published by the MEK.

Dissidents and activists have continued to track suspected coronavirus deaths since then, adding hundreds more to the ranks of those whose bodies are effectively being swept under the rug by clerical authorities. This disclosures come with inherent risks. Already renowned for repression under even the best of conditions, the Iranian regime tends to become far more draconian in the enforcement of pre-fabricated narratives during times of crisis. 

The Iranian regime news website Ruydad notes that “Various interviews have been published with prosecutors and police officials in different cities all saying they have arrested individuals on charges of spreading coronavirus rumors.” Among the recent arrestees were two nurses from Gilan Province, where a local representative to the Health Ministry said that 200 people had died there by last Monday – barely fewer than the total number of deaths acknowledged by national authorities at the time. 

The current surge of arrests is designed to enforce a narrative that portrays the coronavirus outbreak as only a modest threat, or at least as one that Tehran is well-prepared to control. On March 3, no less an authority than regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a public statement in which he stated, “This disease is not serious; we have seen more disastrous calamities than this.” After calling the Covid-19 outbreak a “fleeting event” and a generally ordinary challenge to public health, Khamenei went on to specifically discount allegations that the regime had been misinforming its people and the world. 

Our officials have revealed information since day one with enthusiasm, honesty and transparency, and they informed the people,” he saidBut some other countries where this illness is more intense and widespread, are covering it up.” The supreme leader did not provide any evidence for this latter claim, nor identify which countries he was referring to. But the statement was no doubt intended to encourage the regime’s supporters to conclude that its response to coronavirus has been as good, or better, than that of foreign “enemies” including the United States. 

Iranian regime’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi made the comparison more explicit on Wednesday, calling attention to the rising number of cases in the US and feigning concern over the condition of American prisons. Mousavi’s remarks closely coincided with a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in which a number of experts including the special rapporteur for Iran’s human rights situation called upon the Iranian judiciary to release political prisoners in the wake of credible reports of Covid-19 outbreaks in Iran’s detention facilities.


Tehran claims to have released as many as 70,000 prisoners on furlough. But it is difficult to confirm this claim, and in any event the furlough agreements do not include Western hostages or other political prisoners whose detention is categorized as a national security issue. Meanwhile, the regime insists that in organizing prisoner releases, it is only taking precautions against the future spread of the disease. According to the judiciary and Iranian state media outlets, there have been zero reports of active coronavirus infection in prisons. 

The UN human rights experts say otherwise, and they cite the prisoners themselves as sources for this conclusion. Javaid Rehman, the special rapporteur, observed that “many prisoners have expressed concern that the state is not doing enough,” especially considering that practically no testing has been carried out since prisoners began showing coronavirus symptoms several weeks earlier. Rehman then highlighted the Iranian government’s overall insistence upon controlling the narrative: “They are trying to fudge the issue.” 

Then NCRI’s recent report confirmed that outbreaks had been reported in at least a dozen Iranian prisons by the end of last week. That report also observed that the ward for political prisoners in Karaj Central Prison had been turned into a quarantine ward, and that authorities had been systematically violating the principle of separating prisoners according to the category of their alleged offenses. At the same time, new prisoners were still being admitted to affected facilities, despite authorities’ insistence to the contrary. 

These sorts of observations suggest that Tehran is fully relying upon its campaign of disinformation to prevent backlash from the domestic population and the international community. Meanwhile, there is little sign of regime authorities taking meaningful action to address the crisis. But it is also not clear that those authorities have the resources, organization, or know-how to compensate for the effects of their initial disregard for the seriousness of the outbreak. 

On the other hand, some government officials have begun to join in the effort to counter officials narratives that present Tehran as an innocent party in this worsening situation. On March 3, Massoud Pezeshkian, a member of the Iranian regime’s parliament and former Health Minister, publicly lamented the fact that the regime did not listen to early advice pressing for quarantine of the central holy city of Qom, which quickly became the epicenter of infection not just in Iran but across the region. 

We should have quarantined Qom from day one,” he said. “…If we had done so on the first day, it would not have spread to the entire country.” 

The decision not to do so was presumably influenced by a number of factors, not the least of which was religious sentiment. The city’s status as a Shiite pilgrimage site prompted clerics to bristle at the notion of impeding traffic in and out. The local representative of the supreme leader said on February 26 – a week after the first Iranian coronavirus deaths were recorded and perhaps as much as a month after the illness was recognized in Iran – that Qom “is considered to be a place of healing, and it must be kept open and people have to visit it in force.” 

But an equally serious cause for the regime’s lack of intervention may have been the fear of public unrest in response to any appearance of vulnerability or incompetence on the part of government authorities. But insofar as this decision-making process has only made the crisis worse over time, independent media reports now threaten to give the Iranian people incentives to protest the regime’s actions all the same. 

To those people, it is becoming increasingly clear that the mullahs’ commitment to disinformation has only made the situation worse. “Fearing that we should treat everything as political and security matters, we endanger people’s health,” said the head of Tehran’s Yaftabad hospital on March 1But he immediately went on to add that the nation has become accustomed to this disregard for the public’s welfare in the face of challenges to the regime’s hold on power. “It’s always been this way,” he said. 

As Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the NCRI, reiterated, “The international aid should be directly provided to hospitals and the public without the intervention of the mullahs’ predatory regime. The mullahs’ vicious dictatorship lacks the competence and ability to confront the Coronavirus. The medical facilities and resources are primarily at the service of the Revolutionary Guards and the government officials. Any money that is given to this regime will be plundered and nothing will be done for the people.