State-affiliated media in Iran has been vigorously promoting the idea that the regime is not only effectively managing its own coronavirus outbreak but is actually helping the rest of the world to bring the pandemic under control.
On Tuesday alone, Fars News Agency claimed that 10,000 protective masks had been sent to Afghanistan, that 5,000 Covid-19 tests had been sent to the same country the previous week while 60 other countries expressed interest in obtaining those same tests, and that 40,000 antibody tests had been sent to Germany.
Curiously, the director of the Pasteur Institute of Iran, Alireza Biglari, elaborated on this last story to Western media, noting that the tests were available for export to Europe because Iran was not using them. To the extent that the Iranian regime is testing its own population at all, it is apparently only testing for active coronavirus cases. The regime seems to have no interest in developing a full picture of the prior extent of the outbreak, even if it has the capability to do so.
There is only one sensible explanation for this: The Iranian regime is trying to cover up the true infection rate, and by extension the true death toll, to downplay its own mismanagement of the crisis. In recent weeks, the mullahs’ regime has invested a great deal of energy into convincing its domestic supporters and foreign sympathizers that the Iranian response to Covid-19 was better than that of most Western nations. Regime’s officials such as its President Hassan Rouhani have said this outright and have used it to justify the regime’s policy of prematurely reopening the Iranian economy.
That policy began to go into effect on April 11, when workers in so-called “low-risk” positions were ordered back to their jobs. Since then, mosques in about one-third of the country’s administrative districts have reopened, and entire towns have been designated as “white” zones, with little enough coronavirus spread to allow for the full-scale resumption of normal activities. At the same time, representatives of the Iranian regime’s Ministry of Health have warned that in reality there are no white zones, and that the continuation of this policy could cause a second wave of Covid-19 cases.
It is rare to hear even a single word of dissent from within the Iranian regime. So it is interesting to note that such dissent has been a recurring feature of public discourse about the outbreak in Iran. In late February, when Tehran was still insisting that the death toll from Covid-19 hadn’t exceeded a dozen people throughout the country, one local official from Qom spoke out to reveal that there had been at least 50 fatalities in that city alone.
Much more recently, a member of the Health Ministry task force assigned to the coronavirus acknowledged that the illness had most likely spread to more than half a million people. But even this appears to be a conservative estimate. And of course it will be impossible to know the full extent of the spread if Iranian regime either cannot test the public for antibodies, or refuses to do so.
The best information that we have to go on right now is hospital records and the testimony of Iranian doctors and nurses. From this, The Iranian opposition coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) have determined that the number of infections can probably be measured in millions, and that the total number of fatalities is very nearly 40,000. Historically, the NCRI has been a reliable source of intelligence about Iranian affairs, and these particular reports are only made more plausible by the regime’s preoccupation with covering up any evidence that might challenge their official narrative.
The propaganda value of that narrative is laid bare by dubious claims of Iranian medical exports to Europe. If there is any truth at all to the particular claims about antibody testing, then Iran is beginning to shift its own capacity to other countries, allowing them to develop much more comprehensive records of their own outbreaks, while Iranian records remain threadbare.
But unfortunately for the regime, and fortunately for its many adversaries, this particular bit of propaganda cannot progress without undercutting others.
As soon as an Iranian outbreak of coronavirus was confirmed, the regime began exploiting it as the basis for new arguments in favor of relief from US sanctions. A shocking number of Western policymakers took those arguments seriously, fearing that Iran’s access to medical equipment would be impeded by the American strategy of maximum pressure. But now Iran is not only saying that it doesn’t need additional access to medical supplies, but that it has built up a surplus and is willing to share with the rest of the world. Besides, the regime rejected US humanitarian aid from the beginning, along with its failed campaign of covering up the fact that humanitarian aid are not sanctioned.
Iranian regime’s officials have been contradicting themselves on this point for weeks. One day, state media declares that sanctions have had no impact on the regime’s response to the public health crisis, but the next day the regime’s Foreign Ministry accuses the United States of using “economic terrorism” to harm the Iranian people maliciously. In this way, the regime insists upon sanctions relief but also sets the stage for that relief to be directed toward projects other than managing the public health crisis, which is supposedly already under control.
Under these circumstances, sanctions relief would only give this regime license to step up its crackdown on dissent, accelerate the spread of propaganda, and generally conceal the reality of situation that powerfully exposes the regime’s disregard for its own people’s welfare. And if Iran’s regime is truly offering antibody tests to the nations of Europe, they ought to refuse them.
The entire international community should fully insist that Iran’s regime test people possible. And afterwards, the regime’s leaders should be expected to tell those people why, as Covid-19 was spreading to millions, the mullahs were downplaying the risk, disregarding countermeasures, and insisting that Iranians gather together in public to vote in fixed elections, celebrate their regime’s anniversary, and defy Western critics of the regime’s propaganda.
Yet, the regime won’t do this, since doing this will spark an uprising, and makes the regime’s nightmare of downfall true.