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Iran Regime’s Effort to Control Information Is at Odds With Efforts to Curtail Coronavirus

Iran, Tehran: Coronavirus Outbreak
Iran, Tehran: Coronavirus Outbreak

Iranian regime’s officials offered mixed messages about the country’s coronavirus outbreak on Thursday, as information continued to leak to independent new outlets in spite of the regime’s commitment to concealing the extent of the danger.

After having previously been forced to revise their official estimates slightly upward following a local official’s report that 50 people had already died in the city of Qom alone, the Iranian regime’s Health Ministry acknowledged over 100 additional cases on Thursday, bringing the total to more than 250. 

But this is still widely believed to be an underestimate of the actual infection rate in Iran. Part of the reason for this is because Iran has officially recorded at least 19 deaths from the virus, also known as Covid-19, which began to take on the features of an epidemic in China last year. Despite the rapid spread of the disease, the global mortality rate is estimated to linger somewhere in the range of one to four percent. If the figures coming out of Iran have been accurate, it would put the mortality rate inside that country at well over 10 percent. 

Since there is no clear reason why the mortality rates would differ, it stands to reason that the 19 confirmed deaths reflect an infection rate that reaches into the thousands. There is other evidence for this conclusion, as well. A segment on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” examined the global scale of the disease on Thursday and noted that it is almost unthinkable for Iran to have become a leading vector for regional infection without having first developed a much higher number of domestic cases. At least eight other countries including Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Lebanon have reported instances of infection wherein the patient had recently been to Iran. 

As these regional cases were being reported earlier in the week, it was also noted that multiple cases had apparently originated in Iran’s second most populous city, Mashhad. This was noteworthy because regime’s authorities had not registered a single case in that locality. 

Even in places where the outbreak was acknowledged to be active, these same authorities denied that its scale was any cause of alarm, much less for speculation about the regime’s negligence to control the epidemic. Regarding the alleged 50 fatalities in Qom, regime’s Deputy Health Minister Iraj Haririchi said in a press conference that he did not believe critics of the regime’s response would be able to prove even a quarter of that number. In a moment of extraordinary irony, Harirchi then began to exhibit signs of coronavirus in that same press conference, before confirming that he tested positive for the disease the following day. 

Harirchi announced on social media that he had placed himself under quarantine, but he used the same post to reiterate the regime’s official narrative about having the epidemic under control. This was followed, however, by reports that other government officials and high profile figures in the regime had also contracted the illness. Among these are Masoumeh Ebtekar, the vice president in charge of women and family affairs, and Mojtaba Zolnour, the head of the Iranian regime’s parliament’s National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, who is a notorious criminal.  

These reports have unsurprisingly coincided with a somewhat more serious turn in the regime’s response to the outbreak. Despite continuing to deny the higher infection and fatality rates that had been leaked from Qom on Monday, regime’s authorities advised citizens against visiting the city from Thursday onward. Qom a major center of religious study and pilgrimage, making this advice potentially harmful to the theocratic regime’s self-image, as well as to a number of government-affiliated institutions that rely on religious tourism for their revenue. 

However, officials’ statements made it clear that they were taking a rather tenuous approach to limiting the potential for infection in the central Iranian holy city. Two major shrines in that city remained open as of Thursday, with authorities merely stating that attendees would be expected to carry sanitizer and masks, and to avoid gathering together after visiting the site and praying individually. 

The situation became much more challenging for Iran on Thursday when it was reported that Russia too was taking steps to reduce the risk of infected persons reaching them from Iran. This could pose a substantial threat to Iran regime’s international commerce, since it has become increasingly dependent upon Russia and China as tools for evading or compensating for sanctions imposed by the US. However, the recent Russian announcement underscored that the national carriers Aeroflot and Mahan Air could be exempted from the travel restrictions, leaving elite travel between the countries potentially intact. 

Instead of taking necessary measures, regime’s President Hassan Rouhani declared that individuals with coronavirus would be quarantined but that the outbreak was nowhere near severe enough to justify quarantines of entire populations. Similarly, in the press conference during which he came down with the illness, Deputy Health Minister Harirchi insisted that such large-scale quarantine procedures were pointless relics of the “Stone Age.” 

The deceptive nature of these statements is made apparent by the fact that they are at odds with statements being offered by Iranian doctors and international health organizations. In addition to criticizing the public’s cavalier response to official reassurances, doctors have reached out to the media with new infection rate estimates that reach somewhere near the 18,000 mark. And to the extent that these cases are largely concentrated within a handful of highly populated areas, they are easy to recognize as grounds for more large-scale quarantines. 

Genuine information about the public health crisis was shared among doctors and Health Ministry officials in a meeting last Saturday. But in the aftermath of that meeting, each of the participating doctors was reportedly contacted individually by agents of the Revolutionary Guard, which warned them that there would be consequences for leaking any of the information to the public. 

The details of those prospective consequences are unclear but the IRGC has a long track record of enforcing secrecy and suppressing dissent through violent means. According to the report published by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK) the IRGC criminals are responsible for the deaths of some 1,500 protesters during a nationwide uprising last November. And this month, reports of the sentencing of eight environmental activists recalled attention to the fact that the IRGC has been known to pre-determine the outcome of trials in the nation’s Revolutionary Court. 

No reports have yet reached the international press of doctors being punished for their disclosures to the media. But ordinary citizens have certainly been targeted for that same reason, with Cyber Police announcing on Wednesday that 24 people had been arrested for only “rumor-mongering.” An additional 118 internet users were briefly detained and warned against continuing their activities. According to Iranian state media, those who remain in custody face sentences of between one and three years in prison, plus flogging. 

The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders criticized this behavior in a statement which also highlighted the ways in which the regime’s efforts to control information were undermining its tentative moves to contain the further spread of the virus: 

“Respect for the public’s right to full, independent, diverse and quality news reporting, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the best way to protect the population and combat rumors. Withholding information can kill.” 

Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) said: “The regime is repeating the same narrative regarding the Coronavirus as the one concerning the downing of the Ukrainian airliner, albeit on a much larger scale.” Mrs. Rajavi called on physicians, nurses and hospital staff “To publicize their information quickly in order to save the lives of the Iranian people and to thwart the regime’s cover-up and misleading information.”

Mrs. Rajavi emphasized: “The United Nations, World Health Organization, and other international human rights organizations must compel the religious fascism ruling Iran to make public all the facts and figures regarding COVID-19 and provide them to relevant international organizations in order to save the lives of the people of Iran and other countries in the region.” 

Mrs. Rajavi  urged Iranians, especially the youth, “to stage protests to force the regime to tell the truth and compel it to allocate medical and health care resources and equipment, widely monopolized by the IRGC and security agencies, to the people, hospitals and physicians.”