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As Pandemic’s Impact Becomes More Obvious, So Does Iran Regime’s Efforts to Manipulate It

The density of the COVID-19 Outbreak Cases in Iran
The density of the COVID-19 Outbreak Cases in Iran

On Tuesday, the Iranian regime’s President Hassan Rouhani said that half of all government workers were staying home as part of an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But this statement came just days after Rouhani downplayed the need for social distancing and a reduction in economic activity. While the regime’s Health Ministry has warned of the potential for a spike in cases which could ultimately lead to more than three million deaths, Rouhani insisted that changes to daily life would only last between two and three weeks. 

These divergent statements reflect a weeks-long pattern of inconsistency in the Iranian regime’s response to a crisis that has already claimed thousands of lives. The regime’s official estimates for the death toll have just cleared the 2,000 mark, while the regime’s authorities acknowledge roughly 25,000 cases overall. But according to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK), the death toll is close to 11,000. 

According to the latest disclosures from the MEK, drawn from intelligence sources scattered across Iran, the epidemic had spread to at least 219 cities by Tuesday, claiming 10,900 lives. This estimate is consistent with information that has been provided to the media by Iranian doctors and nurses, some of whom have reported losing 20 or 30 patients in a single day. 

The regime’s Health Ministry has been forced due to the MEK revelations and the international pressure to declare in its statements that roughly one Iranian dies from coronavirus every 10 minutes. Yet the regime as a whole has continued to reject any estimates that contradict an official narrative. And in the interest of enforcing that narrative, authorities have arrested a number of persons, including medical professionals, on accusations of “rumor mongering.” 

Early in the crisis, the regime’s judiciary made it clear that sharing unsanctioned information would result in as much as three years in prison, plus a sentence of flogging. Yet disclosures have continued to trickle out to the public from the Iranian resistance. Early in March, it was reported that one individual had been arrested for sharing video of body bags piled up in a morgue in the city of Qom, which is generally recognized as the epicenter for infection not just in Iran but also throughout the region. 

The severity of the outbreak in Qom was first brought to the public’s attention in February when a local official reported that at least 50 people had died from Covid-19 up to that point. At the time, officials in Tehran were only acknowledging about a dozen deaths across the entire country. The regime’s estimates began to accelerate shortly after this discrepancy was revealed, but it is highly likely that from that starting point, the actual numbers of infections and fatalities have continued to outpace the regime’s official statements. 

Nevertheless, even the regime’s estimates leave no doubt about the fact that Iran is in crisis. If the regime’s figures are taken for granted, Iran still ranks as one of the countries hardest-hit by the global pandemic. The MEK’s report confirms that Iran has far surpassed both China and Italy in terms of both death toll and overall number of infections.  

Resources Lost, but Not to Sanctions 

Making matters worse, the MEK reported on Tuesday that the fatalities up to this point include approximately 40 doctors and 130 nurses who fell ill while caring for patients. This naturally diminishes the Iranian regime’s healthcare system’s ability to handle a quantity of cases that is already overwhelmingly large and still growing. Medical resources are further reduced by the arrest of those doctors and nurses who speak to independent media about the severity of the crisis. 

It is unclear how many such arrests have been carried out, but the mullahs’ regime has been prioritizing the maintenance of propaganda over the management of the situation as it currently exists. In an editorial published by UPI on Tuesday, former Member of the European Parliament Struan Stevenson declared that the Iranian regime has “done nothing to help” its own people at this time, but has instead diverted medical resources like masks and sanitizer away from public hospitals and toward private institutions that exclusively serve government officials and their associates. 

That point was echoed by the US State Department, which released a statement and fact sheet on Monday which blamed the mullahs’ regime for mismanaging the domestic crisis and thereby helping to make the situation worse on a global scale. The US noted that at least five other Middle Eastern countries were able to trace their very first cases back to Iran. It also pointed out that Iranian officials apparently covered up the existence of Covid-19 inside their borders for at least 19 days after they first became aware of it.  

During that time, the airline Mahan Air, which belongs to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), continued to run flights between Iran and China, where the disease originated. The State Department fact sheet refers to Mahan as “Iran’s terrorist airline” in recognition of its longstanding and ongoing role in smuggling weapons and personnel on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Those activities have made Mahan subject to US sanctions since 2011. 

The State Department’s commentary on Iran’s coronavirus outbreak underscored prior statements from the White House which rejected the notion of lifting or suspending these and other sanctions as a means of alleviating the crisis. The US has consistently maintained that despite its strategy of “maximum pressure,” sanctions on the Iranian regime already include built-in exceptions for food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods.  

The Trump administration has highlighted exceptions as a channel for coronavirus relief and has even offered its own aid to Iran.  This, however, was flatly rejected by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Sunday, in a speech that also promoted bogus conspiracy theories about American culpability for the pandemic. After floating the foolish notion that Covid-19 was the result of an American bioweapon, Khamenei suggested that American medicine could be used to somehow prolong the illness and that American medical personnel could act as spies to gather information on the infection inside Iran. 

Khamenei even went so far as to theorize that the novel coronavirus could have been specifically designed to harm Iranians more than others. His remark seemed to imply awareness of a higher infection rate and death toll in Iran than in comparable countries. In this regard, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashed the regime’s highest clerical authority, identifying the latest conspiracy theories as part of a pattern of lies with which he has hidden the nature and severity of the crisis from the Iranian people. 

In this regard, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), said: “Khamenei’s shallow and demagogic rambling reflect, in addition to his cruelty about the (Coronavirus) patients, his despair and passivity emanating from the mortal deadlock engulfing the regime and concern over popular uprisings. While this disaster has swept across Iran and the number of victims continues to grow, Khamenei did not offer any solutions, nor not even a promise to help the people.” 

Mrs. Rajavi added: “Khamenei’s drivel about the production of the virus by the U.S is a desperate attempt to cover up the regime’s incompetence in confronting the disease and the mullahs’ criminal role in the explosive spread of the virus nationwide and to divert the people’s anger, and disgust towards the U.S. But these justifications no longer work and only exacerbate the people’s rage.” 

In addition, 21 Nobel laureates sent a letter to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres calling for “urgent intervention” into the Iranian coronavirus epidemic. The signatories observed that multiple sources indicated the Iranian regime had “covered up the truth in support of its political motives and agenda, including its intention to draw as many people out as possible so they attend its sham parliamentary elections and the anniversary of the 1979 revolution.” 

Insofar as it recommended taking medical resources out of the hands of the IRGC, the letter echoed the regime’s misallocation, as well expressing support for American plans to keep sanctions in place. Those plans have come under mounting pressure in the midst of the crisis, but the State Department’s public statements remain confident that a lack of economic pressure would not necessarily lead the Iranian regime to use its financial resources to benefit its people. 

Demanding Violations Instead of Exceptions 

If Khamenei’s refusal of American aid had not raised questions about the regime’s priorities during this crisis, its subsequent decision to turn away Doctors Without Borders (MSF) surely would have. A statement from the Geneva-based medical charity simply said that plans to assist Iran in the coronavirus relief effort were being put on hold. These plans would have entailed the establishment of a makeshift hospital, but a spokesperson for Iran regime’s Health Ministry stated that this was not needed, and that Iranian hospitals still had ample space. 

This raises serious questions about how Covid-19 sufferers are being treated. Other affected countries with much more sophisticated health systems have lately been stretched thin by the pandemic. Yet those situations have at times emerged from much lower rates of infection and mortality than in Iran, even according to the regime’s highly questionable numbers. 

In this regard, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi said: “Expelling Doctors Without Borders, who had come to Isfahan with prior agreement and coordination demonstrates that the mullahs intend to continue their criminal cover-up, especially about the number of fatalities. This shows that the main problem in Iran is the corrupt dictatorship that does not think about anything but how to preserve its grip on power and that human lives are worthless. The regime wants to receive aid without any supervision so that it can put it at the disposal of the IRGC and regime officials.”

The regime’s decision had been largely based on a general aversion to non-governmental organizations that are headquartered in Western states where many expatriate Iranian dissidents also live. For example, Hossain Shariatmadari, editor in chief of the Keihan daily, which is known as Khamenei’s mouthpiece, in an interview with the state-run Fars News Agency, on Monday described the reason for expelling MSF from Iran as the regime’s “mistrust toward this organization.” He further said that this mistrust is because of the presence of the Iranian Resistance, particularly the MEK, in European countries, including France.   

Additionally, the regime’s Health Ministry hinted at another justification when its spokesperson stated that the potential MSF aid had little value because it did not include any items that were currently banned under US sanctions. Not only does this statement effectively corroborate the State Department’s claim of an open pathway for humanitarian goods; it implies that the regime is willing to overlook those pathways and hold its own people hostage in hopes of circumventing sanctions that are irrelevant to the country’s medical needs. 

It remains to be seen whether such efforts will increase or decrease support for the lifting of US sanctions. On one hand, other Western nations are clearly eager to see the coronavirus outbreak brought under some semblance of control in Iran. And toward that end, the European Union has just announced the provision of 20 million Euros in aid. The EU’s top diplomatic official, Josep Borrell, also indicated that the body would support Iran’s efforts to obtain a five-billion-dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund. 

On the other hand, Tehran’s push for sanctions violations instead of existing exceptions suggests a probable interest in directing foreign acquisitions toward non-humanitarian goals. The US State Department attempted to warn its allies about this with Monday’s fact sheet, which pointed to past instances of the regime accepting cash on the pretense of medical necessity, only for that money to go missing. 

“In July 2019, one billion euros intended for medical supplies ‘disappeared’ and another $170 million dollars allocated for medical goods were instead spent on tobacco,” the document noted before going on to emphasize the likely beneficiaries of this and other misappropriations. “Since 2012, the regime has spent over $16 billion on terror abroad – the Iranian people know that any sanctions relief would go to sponsor terrorist, not humanitarian activities.” 

This same message has been presented to the international community on countless occasions by the NCRI and the MEK. In recent communications, the MEK has highlighted recurring slogans at anti-government protests across Iran, including nationwide uprisings in January 2018 and November 2019. Both movements were defined in part by slogans that condemned regime’s adventurism in places like Syria and Iran and urged the regime to focus on the Iranian people’s problems.