On April 29, a spokesperson for the Iranian regime’s armed forces announced that at least 3,600 people had been arrested over the previous two months for “rumor mongering” about the country’s coronavirus outbreak. His comments were no doubt intended to intimidate the Iranian people into keeping silent about experiences that point to a much higher death toll than the regime has acknowledged. But any reasonable observer would surely recognize the crackdown on alternate narratives as evidence that the regime has something to hide.
According to the regime, the official death toll from Covid-19 has just passed 6,000. Government officials estimate that something like 95,000 people have been infected in total. But recently, a report by the regime’s Parliament Research Center suggested that the actual infection rate may be roughly double what the Health Ministry has reported. And this is not even the most dramatic contradiction to emerge from within the ranks of the Iranian government.
Earlier in April, one member of the Health Ministry’s coronavirus task force expressed the belief that upwards of 500,000 people had contracted the disease. From the regime’s perspective, this commentary must have come dangerously close to vindicating the claims that had been made by various private citizens throughout the several weeks the outbreak was known to be active.
Among those whistleblowers were Iranian nurses and morgue attendants. While the former described situations in which dozens of patients were dying each day in a single hospital, the latter provided images from morgues that had been positively overloaded with body bags. Those shocking visuals were amplified by international headlines sometime later, when satellite imagery revealed that Iranian authorities had dug massive trenches in at least to cemeteries, in preparation for tens of thousands of burials.
This is plainly inconsistent with the regime’s reports of only 6,000 deaths. It is much more consistent with the alternate figures that have been provided by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The NCRI has been tracking the impact of the coronavirus outbreak since the beginning, and its latest reports indicate that nearly 39,300 fatalities have occurred so far.
The NCRI’s reporting has also been instrumental in outlining the severity of the crisis that may still lie ahead for Iran, assuming that the government does not correct its botched response to the public health crisis.
A key feature of that botched response is the regime’s impulse toward secrecy – the same impulse that has led to at least 3,600 arrests for “rumor mongering.” While Tehran’s first public acknowledgment of a domestic coronavirus outbreak occurred on February 19, documents obtained by the NCRI indicate that patients in Iranian hospitals had been identified as likely Covid-19 cases an entire month earlier.
The regime’s failure to report on these cases prevented the public from reacting appropriately to the outbreak until weeks after it had gained a foothold in the country. Worse still, Iranian officials actively encouraged citizens to place themselves in dangerous situations throughout that period, as by attending parades commemorating the anniversary of the regime’s anniversary and by participating in parliamentary elections later in February.
There is no telling how many people were infected at those gatherings, while the government concealed the looming crisis. But if accurate infection figures had been released in the subsequent weeks, there would have been no way of avoiding the conclusion that the regime’s public communications kick-started the infection and set the stage for a situation in which it is fully out of control.
In this way, the regime’s terrible handling of the crisis has inspired even more secrecy about its impact, and vice versa. This has ultimately left Tehran with little recourse but to pretend that the outbreak is under control, silence those voices that say otherwise, and wait for it to run its course. Sadly, though, this disease will not run its course in Iran until there have been tens or even hundreds of thousands of additional fatalities.
Starting with infection and mortality figures provided by the NCRI, two French researchers ran a statistical model in April that predicted 60,000 more Iranians could die from Covid-19 just by the end of May. This conclusion stemmed from the assumption that the regime would follow through with its plans to reopen the economy and resume normal social activities.
That process, begun on April 11 by returning supposedly “low-risk” workers to their jobs, has continued unabated ever since. It was preceded by a lockdown that began much later and ended much more quickly than those instituted by Iran’s far less hard-hit neighbors. The weak effort to counter the spread of coronavirus was a testament to the regime’s incompetence in dealing with the crisis. By halting that effort, the regime is demonstrating its commitment to the seeing its incompetence through.
The only way it can hope to do so without courting mass uprising or complete global isolation is by stanching the flow of information and hiding the reality of what is happening on the mullahs’ watch. But notwithstanding 3,600 arrests or more, the truth about Iran’s outbreak is gradually leaking out. This, in turn, promises to clarify regime’s disregard for human life. And once that happens, the regime will surely find that the challenges it hopes to avoid are, in fact, unavoidable.