According to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the number of fatalities of coronavirus has reached a staggering number of 300,000. Official estimates from the Iranian Health Ministry put the death toll at only about a quarter of that number, but those estimates have been unreliable since the very beginning. Furthermore, the MEK’s detailed account of the pandemic’s impact on Iran is inherently more plausible and more consistent with the infection rates and death tolls are seen in other countries that struggled to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The mullahs ruling #Iran facilitated the spread of #Coronavirus and did not make any serious efforts to contain it. This is why the pandemic has turned into a source for hidden escalation of fury and anger. pic.twitter.com/KaMbCX5zdn
— Maryam Rajavi (@Maryam_Rajavi) May 28, 2021
While the death toll has declined in other countries due to vaccination, the death toll has risen to almost double in Iran because the regime’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei has banned importing American and European vaccines.
Iran has long been recognized as the worst-affected country in the Middle East, but credible reports elevate it to one of the worst-affected in the entire world. It also explains the most important causes of that situation, which include patterns of disinformation that emerged before domestic cases of Covid-19 were even acknowledged by Iranian authorities.
The first public statements on that topic emerged in mid-February of last year, just ahead of the Iranian regime’s parliamentary elections. But documents obtained by the MEK showed that Iran’s National Emergency Organization had recorded probable cases of the new infection as early as December 2019. These, however, were covered up, presumably in order to minimize fears of public gathering ahead of planned events celebrating the anniversary of the regime’s founding, and later, mourning that regime’s leading terrorist operative, Qassem Soleimani.
As in previous years, the anniversary celebration was carefully stage-managed by authorities, who made participation mandatory for various government employees and provided free transportation and other incentives to others in order to maximize the crowds that would appear before state television cameras. This manufactured image of public support for the regime was especially important in early 2020, coming just months after a nationwide anti-government uprising, during which citizens of nearly 200 localities chanted slogans that condemned the entire ruling system and called for the establishment of a truly democratic alternative.
That sentiment would later be expressed once again during the parliamentary elections, which saw the lowest voter turnout in the 40-year history of the Iranian regime. The early signs of this electoral boycott may have actually helped convince Iranian authorities to suddenly allow reporting on domestic coronavirus infections so as to provide a cover story when the public rejected the faux democratic process as a sham. It is quite possible that in the absence of the boycott, Tehran’s cover-up may have lasted even longer. Still, by the time it ended, much damage had already been done by the state-run public gatherings in January and early February.
Those early super-spreader events, followed by slow and often non-existent government response to the pandemic, make it distinctly unlikely that the regime’s Health Ministry’s estimates are anywhere near to reality these 15 months later. By the time the first official estimates were prepared, local officials were beginning to warn about dozens of fatal cases being registered just in certain hard-hit cities. Yet, the Health Ministry insisted that barely a dozen initial deaths had been recorded across the entire country.
Over time, the pace of the Ministry’s reporting accelerated, but it has always lagged far behind MEK reports that were prepared based on hospital and morgue records, leaked government documents, and testimony from healthcare professionals who had witnessed the uncontrolled spread of the virus first-hand. Many of those experts have also spoken to Iranian media and their quotations have been published in local newspapers or broadcast on state television. In those cases, however, the remarks have been presented in isolation rather than in context with eyewitness reports from other hospitals and localities.
Still, state media reports can be collected together in order to reveal that just this month, medical staff have recorded one or two dozen daily coronavirus deaths in each hospital. Collectively, these reports indicate that there must be hundreds of daily deaths in Iran as a whole and that the situation is much farther from being brought under control than government officials have suggested.
The past weeks have borne out that prediction with the continuation of a “fourth wave” of infections that the dead of Arak Medical Services University described as a “tsunami,” the likes of which “may never be experienced again in history.” As of May 19, one hospital in Khuzestan reported having 95 percent of its ICU beds dedicated to Covid-19 cases and 90 percent of its ordinary beds. Meanwhile, the number of vaccinations barely inched upward anywhere in the country, and the daily rate of their dissemination remained at a level that, if sustained, would not cross the threshold of herd immunity for another three years.
The total number of available doses has not grown as it might have because of an order from the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banning the import of vaccines that were manufactured in the United States or the United Kingdom. This is an initiative by Khamenei to deliberately slow the nation’s recovery for fear of the impact that it would have on social unrest.
Since November 2019 uprising, Khamenei and others have been warning about the prospect of further unrest, particularly unrest led by the MEK. At the height of the pandemic, this danger was seemingly held in check by the challenge of organizing large-scale unrest at a time when people are working to avoid transmission of a deadly contagion.
Although the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards collectively control hundreds of billions of dollars in financial assets, virtually none of these have been released to support the people in the face of the pandemic or to make it possible for the impoverished Iranian people to stay home and avoid work for long enough to flatten the curve.
More than just hoarding those resources, Khamenei has actually made recognizable efforts to expand them on the back of the pandemic. In March 2020, as the global threat to public health was just being recognized, the regime’s Supreme Leader marked the start of the Iranian calendar year by declaring that the nation’s top priority should be “boosting production.” This incentivized local authorities and private enterprises to capitalize on the lack of financial support for the Iranian people by pressuring them to do even more work in the absence of safeguards against virus transmission.
Furthermore, as vaccines began to come available, Khamenei reportedly intervened with the Health Ministry to derail the original plan for distribution to be handled by the Ministry itself. Instead, that task was placed in the hands of various ostensibly private enterprises, many of which are actually well-known affiliates or front companies for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The MEK quickly responded to that news by predicting that it would lead to exorbitant prices being charged for vaccines that the government had insisted would be free.
This prediction has proven to be accurate, with even some state media outlets reporting that individual doses have appeared on the IRGC-dominated black market with price tags up to 2,800 US dollars. The Guards are therefore making a profit on both wholesale distribution and individual sales while also creating a situation in which government officials and other elites will be virtually guaranteed access to doses ahead of the general population.
Meanwhile, the population continues to suffer from rates of infection and death that are actually accelerating in Iran, even as they are declining in other countries with access to vaccines. For better or worse, that disparity seems to have recently altered the Iranian people’s calculations regarding the comparative dangers of gathering in large numbers versus allowing the regime’s latest abuses to remain more or less unchallenged.
In March, just ahead of another Iranian New Year, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of NCRI, delivered a speech in which she highlighted recent unrest spanning much of Sistan and Baluchistan Province and called it evidence that “the fire of the uprisings is rising from the ashes of the coronavirus.” Since then, various demonstrations have been staged across multiple cities by groups, including pensioners and victims of a government-run investment scam, mostly calling attention to worsening poverty and economic corruption.
Even more recently, many of those demonstrations have also voiced support for a MEK-led effort to boycott next month’s presidential election, which some commentators in state media have said could be a precursor to further nationwide uprisings calling for the overthrow of the regime.