The Iranian regime has been trying to conceal its mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic since the day it reached the country. Over time, that effort has seemingly become more and more divorced from reality to the point at which some of the regime’s officials now insist the crisis is disappearing, even as the evidence points to a second wave of infection in many areas.
The pattern of deception began with weeks of refusal to acknowledge that the novel coronavirus had even breached Iran’s borders. The first official government statement on the matter was recorded on February 19. But documents from Iran’s National Emergency Organization later showed that suspected COVID-19 cases had been admitted to Iranian hospitals before the end of January.
The long period of denial was presumably motivated by a desire to promote – or in some cases compel – mass participation in February’s sham parliamentary elections and celebrations of the anniversary of the regime’s foundation. This underscores the twisted nature of the clerical regime’s priorities, which consistently place self-aggrandizement and force projection ahead of the vital needs of the Iranian people.
Those same priorities prompted the Iranian regime’s officials to repeatedly downplay the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, lest the regime appears as weak or incompetent as it is in reality. The late announcement of active COVID-19 cases set the stage for official infection and mortality estimates that lagged far behind the actual spread. And ultimately, rather than play catch-up with the true figures, the regime simply committed to a fantasy in which the virus reached a certain level transmission and then began to level off in absence of serious government interventions.
The result of that commitment is that the Iranian regime’s authorities are presently reporting something on the order of 7,500 deaths from the coronavirus outbreak. This is nothing to thumb one’s nose at, but it pales in comparison to the figures that have been shared by independent gathering outlets like the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
According to the NCRI, the death toll from CPVID-19 exceeded 48,000 in the last days of May, more than six times the figure being presented to the public by the Iranian regime’s Health Ministry. As the NCRI has said before, only a very small portion of the public is susceptible to this sort of disinformation. After all, the higher death toll is supported by testimony from ordinary citizens and from Iranian doctors and nurses throughout the country, who have risked arrest by sharing personal accounts of an overwhelmed hospital system and incomparable daily losses of life.
The risk of arrest is not just theoretical. At the beginning of March, the judiciary made it clear that telling the truth, or as the regime says “rumor mongering” about the coronavirus outbreak would be met with arrest, leading to brutal flogging and sentences of up to three years in prison. And in mid-May, security forces announced that more than 300 people were facing prosecution on these very grounds.
It is well understood that the possibility of a much longer sentence looms for anyone who dissents against the clerical regime or contradicts its official narratives. This is especially true if that contradiction can be tied, in any way, to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) and NCRI, which are the leading source of opposition to the theocratic dictatorship.
Tehran’s initial efforts to deny the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak leaned heavily upon references to foreign and domestic “enemies” of the regime. In the common language of the regime’s officials, this term tends to refer to the MEK. Well-justified fears of the pandemic were dismissed as part of a coordinated effort to demoralize the Iranian public and destabilize the ruling system.
In the wake of many thousands of deaths, the regime’s president Hassan Rouhani seems to be circling back to this narrative with his latest public comments. “Some are trying to scare people in the country about the coronavirus disease,” he said on May 23, adding that authorities “should not tolerate this.” The implicit threat was later strengthened when Rouhani tried to substantiate claims of a waning public health crisis by saying that any surges of infection would be attributable to misbehavior and non-compliance by ordinary citizens, not poor planning by the regime.
Such remarks could set the stage for security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to initiate wide-ranging crackdowns, on the pretense of helping to conclude the fight against COVID-19. In fact, there is evidence that this has already been happening. The IRGC, already a dominant force in the Iranian regime’s hierarchy and its control of Iran’s economy, was given even greater authority and funding by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, specifically in response to the pandemic. And a portion of that authority may have gone toward pursuing PMOI activists after Khamenei cited them as a looming threat to the regime’s hold on power.
According to the NCRI, Iran has been experiencing a new wave of arrests and interrogations in recent weeks. Many of the targets of those arrests report that authorities’ questions are entirely focused on examining detainees’ relationships with the Iranian Resistance and assessing the popularity of its calls for regime change.
Those calls already secured mainstream acceptance with two recent, nationwide uprisings, one in January 2018 and the other in November 2019. This was the initial impetus for Khamenei to violate a longstanding taboo on the public mention of the MEK. His continued violation of that taboo is no doubt driven by anxiety about the looming public response to a mismanaged public health crisis, especially given that the gulf is constantly widening between official narratives and genuine records.
The true rates of infection and death indicate that as long as Tehran’s mismanagement persists, the crisis is still going to get worse before it gets better. Meanwhile, as long as Tehran’s disinformation persists, the same can be said for the authorities’ treatment of citizens who oppose the official narrative. But the silver lining in all this is that with so many citizens telling the truth and receiving support from an organized Resistance movement, things are also going to get worse for the mullahs. And amidst growing calls for their overthrow, they may never get better.