The MEK was previously responsible for the first key disclosures regarding Tehran’s clandestine nuclear program, which helped to establish the quality of its intelligence sources not just in Iranian society but with regime institutions.
The MEK’s account of the severity of the Covid-19 crisis in Iran is also supported by evidence of the regime authorities covering up elements of that crisis since its earliest stages. Documents from Iran’s National Emergency Organization indicate that cases of coronavirus infection were identified in early January 2020, yet they were not acknowledged by government officials until mid-February, just prior to the sham parliamentary elections that the regime nonetheless implored all citizens to participate in. The regime’s then-President Hassan Rouhani later boasted that the regime “did not delay one day” in revealing the presence of the novel coronavirus, but in fact, the first official disclosures emerged only in order to substantiate an apolitical explanation for the looming electoral boycott.
Even after the regime acknowledged that the pandemic had reached Iran, authorities continued downplaying it to an absurd degree. That effort even spawned threats of arrest and prosecution for anyone deemed to be “spreading propaganda” by contradicting the regime’s official reports of a very slow uptick in rates of infection and death. For much of February, those reports included a single-digit death toll for the entire country. Meanwhile, medical professionals and local officials in certain hard-hit areas told independent news outlets and social media users that dozens of fatalities had already occurred just within their own narrow jurisdictions.
The regime’s cover-up in early 2020 goes well beyond the regime’s awareness of its own lack of effective interventions. Acknowledging the fast-accelerating death toll in February would have meant acknowledging that the regime had deliberately put the Iranian people at risk for the sake of its own propaganda.
Still reeling from the effects of nationwide uprisings in January 2018 and November 2019, Tehran was desperate to present images to the world which seemed to demonstrate popular support for the mullahs’ rule.
Of course, since Covid-19 had been spreading inside Iran with the government’s knowledge for weeks prior to those events, the parades constituted nationwide super-spreader events that could have easily been canceled. Instead, not only did the regime eschew this responsibility prior to its official acknowledgment of the pandemic, but it also continued to do so afterward by refusing to announce large-scale lockdowns while also providing no support to Iranians who might have chosen to help the situation on their own by avoiding work and social situations.
That lack of support was reaffirmed in March when Iran marked the start of its New Year. In a holiday speech, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared that residents should focus on “boosting [economic] production,” during the year ahead, meaning that the government expected them to engage in more of the same professional activities that had kept them afloat prior to the pandemic. Khamenei personally controls hundreds of billions of dollars, much of which is held in so-called religious foundations, but authorized the release of none of it to help manage the crisis.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sits on a similar sum thanks to its various private sector partnerships and its maintenance of front companies like the construction giant known as Khatam al-Anbia. In various reports over the years, the PMOI has outlined an IRGC financial empire that accounts for more than half of Iran’s gross domestic product. None of that economic output benefits the Iranian people – be it during the pandemic or at any other time. Instead, much of the national wealth remains earmarked for projects favored by Khamenei and the IRGC, such as support for the Assad regime in Syria and the proliferation of Shiite militant proxies throughout the region.
Of course, a portion of the IRGC’s wealth also goes to its domestic activities, which include the violent suppression of protests like the 2018 and 2019 uprisings. In the latter instance, the IRGC opened fire on crowds all across the country, killing 1,500 people in a matter of days. This speaks to the escalation of repressive measures in the months leading up to the pandemic
Prior to the start of the pandemic, it was widely anticipated that large-scale unrest would continue recurring in Iran for the foreseeable future. But protests became scarce after February 2020 despite the fact that they had taken place simultaneously in more than a dozen provinces in January. It was on account of this apparent pandemic effect that Khamenei told fellow regime officials on at least one occasion that he believed Covid-19 would turn out to be a “blessing.” If so, it may also be that the regime deliberately mismanaged the crisis in order to preserve this effect.
The regime allowed a virus to spread among the general population as part of an effort to silence unrest. In fact, that decision is the only credible explanation for Khamenei’s further decision to ban the import of effective Covid-19 vaccines from the US and Europe.
That decision helped contribute to a “fifth wave” of infections in Iran which has grown to include daily death tolls sometimes in excess of 2,000. Meanwhile, the IRGC has been distributing foreign vaccines through the black market it controls, with the supreme leader’s full awareness. This has resulted in a situation where the general population continues to suffer from an ever-worsening crisis.