While the Iranian opposition announced on Tuesday that Covid-19 death toll has surpassed 97,000, the Iranian regime’s Health Ministry recorded that approximately 21,500 fatalities related to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is certainly significant for a country of 83 million people, and marks Iran as the country with the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East. But Tehran’s official reports are clearly designed to put a positive spin on the crisis and to encourage the perception that the government response has been effective in mitigating the spread of disease while improving healthcare outcomes for those already infected.
Toward that end, the regime reported on Sunday that it had recorded its smallest increase in new cases in three months. This ostensibly coincided with seven consecutive days of declining death tolls, although the official number of fatalities on Sunday was still in the triple digits, at 103. State media outlets sought to give the impression that the country was on track to continue these trends, as the government was discouraging or actively curtailing the public holiday celebrations that would normally be taking place at this time of year.
To anyone who reads these reports, it might seem as if the Iranian regime has, as a minimum, been following common sense principles for safeguarding public health. But these reports are rather ironic for anyone who has been monitoring Iran’s coronavirus outbreak since the beginning. The supposed government measures to minimize in-person contact during Tasu’a and Ashura are diametrically opposed to the measures that Tehran took when the outbreak was just getting underway and civil authorities were promoting celebrations for the anniversary of the regime taking power in 1979.
Technically, that anniversary took place before there had been any public acknowledgement of an active outbreak inside Iran. But the threat of that outbreak was very well-established, especially in light of increasingly close ties, and thus increasingly frequent travel, between Iran and China, where the novel coronavirus originated. And in any event, leaked documents later revealed that despite the absence of public statements from the Health Ministry or other regime officials, Covid-19 had already secured a firm foothold in Iran before the February celebrations of the regime’s foundation.
The first of these documents were obtained by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK / PMOI) and released by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). They showed that Iran’s National Emergency Organization had recorded cases of suspected coronavirus infection before the end of January, meaning that regime authorities had kept the outbreak a secret from the public until after Iranians had already started dying. Their first public statement on the matter came on February 19 and referred to two recent deaths. Meanwhile, independent reports suggested that 10 or more additional deaths had also taken place but had gone unacknowledged by Tehran.
A later leak came from Dr. Mohammad Reza Mahboubfar, who had served on the regime’s Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Combat Task Force before he began speaking to the press in early August. The doctor’s revelations, which was the outcome of the regime’s infightings, included an even earlier start date for Iran’s outbreak, with the first cases apparently having been reported before the end of December 2019. Mahboubfar also suggested in an interview with the Jahan-e Sanat daily newspaper that the actual death toll from Covid-19 as of August 10 might have been as much as 20 times higher than what the Health Ministry had reported.
Tehran responded by forcing the closure of that newspaper for a while, but not before the interview lent additional credence to the fact that mullahs’ deliberately covered up the existence of virus in Iran.
These reports continue to be released at semi-regular intervals, and they indicate that Iran is just on the verge of reaching a six-digit coronavirus death toll, even as the regime continues to insist that the situation is well in hand.
Now, about a week after Mahboubfar made his most bold statement about the severity of the outbreak, the MEK places the death toll at just over 97,000. At the same time, official reports from the Health Ministry said that fewer than 20,000 people had died. By then, this differential had become familiar. For many months, Tehran’s official estimates have been less than a sixth of the actual figure. But measured strictly as a percentage of the real total, the regime’s public denial has actually become less severe over time.
When only 10 days had passed since the regime’s official acknowledgement of the outbreak, the NCRI had already collected enough hospital records and eyewitness statements to determine that the death toll had surpassed 1,000. But the regime acknowledged only 124 cases. On March 23, the regime tentatively pointed toward a more serious problem, releasing news of 1,812 deaths. But the NCRI recognized a situation that was already spiraling out of control, with over 10,000 Iranians dead, and hundreds more dying.
In fact, the Resistance had recognized that trajectory from the very beginning. On February 21, NCRI President-elect, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi urged the World Health Organization to send supervisory and medical teams to Iran, to handle the sort of crisis management for which the theocratic regime was ill-equipped and frankly uninterested. February 21 also happened to be the date of the regime’s sham parliamentary elections in Iran, which stood right alongside the anniversary celebrations as symbols of the regime’s misplaced priorities in the face of a public health crisis.
The cover-up of initial cases provided that regime with plausible deniability when it urged citizens to assemble in public, with no precautions, to give the impression that the regime had support from its people. There was no such deniability after February 19, and yet the regime’s behavior remained much the same. In the first place, authorities offered free travel and other incentives to Iranians who chose to watch parades and appear before state television cameras. And when it came time for the sham election, polling hours were extended in hopes of increasing turnout, while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared that voting was a religious obligation for every eligible person.
Yet, turnout in the parliamentary elections still ended up being historically low, albeit for reasons apparently unrelated to the coronavirus. Still, there is no telling how many people were exposed to infection due to the regime’s insistence, or how many people ultimately died as a direct result of authorities cramming people together when it would have been most effective to keep them apart.
Now, Tehran is lauding its own interventions, including social distancing protocols in heavily affected areas. But the regime should not be allowed to get away with this self-aggrandizement when the problem it is trying to manage is a problem that it had a major role in creating. In particular, the regime should not be permitted to continue spreading false narratives about the scale of the public health crisis – not when the NCRI has been providing such consistent and detailed reporting that contradicts that narrative and reveals the extent to which Tehran cannot be trusted with this or anything else that may determine the life or death of its citizens.
Therefore, as Mrs. Rajavi said the World Health Organization should send supervisory and medical teams to Iran and independently help the Iranian people.