In mid-March, the Iranian regime’s President Hassan Rouhani praised his regime for its supposed transparency regarding the country’s coronavirus outbreak. “We learned on February 19 that coronavirus had come,” he said. “Then the people were told. We did not delay even a day.” As the National Council of Resistance of Iran, NCRI, said this was a part of a pattern of “blatant lies” by the regime and particularly Rouhani. That pattern apparently continues to the present day and includes official Health Ministry estimates which under-report the number of fatal Covid-19 cases by tens of thousands.
The NCRI has been tracking the actual death toll since the February 19 disclosure. According to reports tallied by the Iranian Resistance the number of cases at that time was indicative of an outbreak that had been active for some time. This was later confirmed when the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) obtained documents from the National Emergency Organization which listed several cases of suspected coronavirus infection dating back to almost a month before the regime’s announcement.
Later disclosures from a former member of the Health Ministry’s coronavirus task force confirmed the veracity of these documents and indicated a new and much higher scope of the regime’s denial. According to Dr. Mohammad Reza Mahboubfar, community spread of the novel coronavirus could have started as early as December in Iran, making it one of the first countries to be affected outside of China, and setting the stage for rates of infection and mortality that the regime would be desperate to cover up.
Such an early start date for Iran’s outbreak is certainly plausible because ties between the Iranian regime and China have been growing precipitously in recent years. Tehran has been increasingly reliant on China as an economic lifeline, and travel between the two countries has grown in parallel. What is more, the Iranian regime prioritized its interests over people’s lives. Thus, its unwillingness to alter existing policies led to the regime’s early refusal to limit that travel. In fact, even after Iranian borders were closed, Mahan Airlines continued flying to and from China at the behest of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC).
This was only one of many devastating missteps by regime authorities. It might have been possible to manage the risks associated with accepting potential sources of infection into the country, if not for the fact that Iranian officials also seemed to be going out of their way to maximize the risks of domestic spread, also. This was evident in the wake of the February 19 announcement of the outbreak, when the same authorities who issued that announcement also joined their colleagues in urging the entire populous to participate in their sham parliamentary elections two days later.
Desperate to have large election turnout, the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that such participation should be considered a religious duty, and he specified that even if voters saw no options on the ballot that represented their interests, they should still appear at polling places to show support for the regime as a whole. People’s answer was clear enough: the majority of the population ignored mullahs’ appeal, resulting in the lowest recorded electoral turnout since 1979. But even for the regime’s supporters who participated, authorities took no countermeasures to maintain distance and sanitization, and offered no guidance to their own agents on avoiding the disease that had supposedly arrived in Iran just two days earlier. Thus, many of these people turned to hosts of the novel coronavirus and spread it across Iran.
Whatever impact the elections had on the spread of coronavirus, it probably paled in comparison to the impact of earlier regime efforts to bring people together into close proximity, and in large numbers throughout the country. February also marked the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, which the regime typically exploits as an opportunity for carefully stage-managed displays of public support for the regime. Government employees are routinely compelled to take part in public celebrations, while the regime tries to convince other to participate in this carnival by giving them free travel and other incentives to appear before the cameras of state media outlets. This year was no exception, despite authorities’ awareness of the creeping threat of Covid-19.
Indeed, the regime’s anniversary may have been a major reason why Tehran held back public disclosure of the outbreak. After all, a manufactured image of support for the regime was all the more important in the wake of two nationwide uprisings that demonstrated popular support for regime change – one in January 2018 and another in November 2019. But in the aftermath of the denials, the eventual disclosure, and the subsequent rapid growth in rates of infection and death, regime officials have begun warning one another about the possibility of even more widespread uprisings, under with the MEK and its Resistance Units at forefront.
Khamenei acknowledged the PMOI as the driving force behind the early uprising, and he later delivered a speech to the Basij militia, posing as students, in which he urged them to counter PMOI messaging before it can overrun any future campus demonstrations. This was only one of many communications from top-ranking regime officials that point to growing expectations of persistent and severe public unrest. One can assume that those expectations will only grow further as more Iranians respond to the adverse impact that Tehran has had on the coronavirus pandemic.
There is not much that the regime can do to forestall this impact, other than continue denying the severity of the crisis while portraying its own response as responsible and effective. But this narrative will not survive for very long. It has been contradicted every step of the way by the Iranian Resistance, which in turn has cited countless Iranians with firsthand knowledge of how much suffering has gone un-acknowledged by regime authorities. In this regard, the international media outlets should stop reflecting regime’s self-serving, fabricated official estimates.
The latest announcements from the regime’s Health Ministry put the overall death toll at under 22,000. The NCRI, meanwhile, reports that the number of fatal cases has surpassed 100,000. This means that the death toll has grown by a factor of five in just over five months, during which time Tehran has made every effort to portray the crisis as being well under control.
The Iranian people will not fall for these deceptions and the international community should not either. The Iranian Resistance is reporting on a tremendous milestone in the Iranian segment of the global pandemic. Instead of allowing the Iranian regime to use the COVID-19 as a tool to quell the restive Iranian society, the international community must reject mullahs’ deception and recognize the dimension of the COVID-19 catastrophe in Iran.