Iran may now be the site of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak. Official figures from the Iranian government suggest that the country is no worse than France in terms of number of confirmed cases, and still well-behind China in terms of the number of deaths. But Iran’s totals are the product of a longstanding cover-up, which has seen dozens of Iranians arrested and has slowed the international response to a worsening humanitarian crisis.
In reality, is appears likely that well over a million Iranians have been afflicted by Covid-19. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has been closely tracking the cases and has determined that over 13,600 people have already died from the illness. This finding is corroborated by reports in Western media that quote Iranian medical professionals as saying that dozens of patients are dying in individual hospitals each day. Additionally, satellite images and eyewitness testimony have revealed the excavation of massive trenches in at least two Iranian cemeteries, which can apparently accommodate tens of thousands of individual graves.
The problem is only getting worse. And far beyond simply concealing the severity of the outbreak, the Iranian regime is actually taking steps to prevent Iranians from getting the relief they desperately need. Last week, regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rejected an offer of aid from the United States. He later attempted to justify this move by openly speculating that the pandemic originated as an American bioweapon and that it had even been specifically designed to do the most harm to Iranians.
It should go without saying that there is not a shred of evidence for these wild conspiracy theories, which Khamenei prefaced by saying “I do not know whether the accusation is true or not.” But his speech on the topic betrayed his regime’s awareness of the fact that Covid-19 has devastated Iran even more than other countries. Tehran is still doing everything in its power to deny that fact, although the reality of the situation is becoming increasingly difficult to cover up.
Conspiracy theories are no doubt intended to prepare the way for a campaign of scapegoating once Iran’s entire population of 80 million becomes fully aware of just how badly the regime has mishandled the situation. Yet in the near term, those same theories allow the mullahs to indulge the very same political impulses that led to regime into its current disaster. Concealments and cover up of the facts, prompted the regime to reject help from Doctors Without Borders just days after Khamenei gave his speech decrying the US.
Kianush Jahanpour, a spokesperson for the Iranian Health Ministry, said on Wednesday that the country didn’t need the makeshift hospital that the NGO was offering to build, because Iran’s own hospitals still had ample space. Anyone who has borne direct witness to the crisis knows that this is a bald-faced lie. And it is therefore clear to these same people that the regime has no interest in protecting the Iranian people from infection, or even helping them to survive and recover after they have been exposed.
Unfortunately, it is difficult for ordinary Iranians to reach the international community with accounts of their own abandonment at the hands of their government. Some have managed to communicate that message through the main opposition groups, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). Some, including doctors and nurses, have also spoken anonymously to Western journalists. But in each case, they have done so at great risk to themselves. In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, the Iranian judiciary has made it clear that “rumor mongering” can be punished with flogging and up to three years in prison. And throughout most of the regime’s 41-year history, any communication with the MEK has been considered grounds for capital punishment.
That fact says a great deal about the trends underlying the regime’s terrible response to Covid-19. Since very soon after the revolution, Tehran’s singular preoccupation has been to stamp out dissent and consolidate its own power. This led to the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988, to the proliferation of militant proxies across the region, to the pursuit of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against foreign pressure, and so on and so forth. And through it all, the Iranian people have suffered criminal neglect even at times when they were not being actively victimized by the mullahs’ repressive institutions.
As long as those institutions remain in place, the Iranian people will always be forced to confront national crises on their own. This is as true during the coronavirus pandemic as it was during last year’s devastating floods, which led to numerous clashes between the people and a paramilitary response that focused on the regime’s economic interests, without regard for the public’s lives or property.
This did not stop Tehran from using the floods to renew its appeals for sanctions relief. And unsurprisingly, the regime is taking the same tack with the present situation. It is imperative that the international community does not take such appeals seriously.
Any foreign government or NGO that wishes to help the Iranian people at this time should do so by taking an active role in the relief effort. They must not entertain the idea that relief can be facilitated by simply handing money to the mullahs in the form of sanctions relief. That strategy has never worked before, and it will not work now.