Amid a Mounting Coronavirus Toll, Iranian Officials Reject Social Distancing and Foreign Help

All Indicators Point to an Outbreak Far Worse than Tehran’s Official Numbers Suggest

Iran’s management of the coronavirus has exposed glaring deficiencies in Tehran’s decision-making. Iranian medical experts are warning of an escalating outbreak and dire consequences if aggressive containment measures, including social distancing and economic closure, are not taken. By contrast, Iran’s political leadership has portrayed the danger as one of foreign manufacture, and rejected both foreign aid and lockdowns. All indicators point to an outbreak far worse than Tehran’s official numbers suggest. 

IRANIAN DOCTORS SOUND THE ALARM

The Iranian medical community has been sounding increasingly dire notes about the pace of Covid-19’s spread throughout the country. On Thursday, Kianoush Jahanpour, a spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Health, tweeted that “almost 3 people are infected with Covid-19 in Iran every hour, and one person dies every 10 minutes.”

In a similar vein, Dr. Mohammad Reza Zafarghandi, the head of the government’s Medical Council, recently said he holds a grimmer view than most government officials. In his assessment, “We are still on an upward slope;” if social distancing policies can be effectively adopted and closures imposed, then “the country can pass through the peak of the virus” by late March. However, he added, “If we keep moving on the current path … it will continue until [late May] or even longer.” 

Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to sweep through the senior ranks of the Iranian government. On Monday, Izzat Khamoushi, mother-in-law of Ayatollah Khamenei’s son Maytham, succumbed to the coronavirus. The next day, state media reported that Habib Barzegari, a founding member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and an advisor to the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the city of Meybod, also died from the virus. His passing marks the sixteenth death of a senior regime figure. 

REGIME OFFICIALS RESPOND WITH CHARGES OF CONSPIRACY 

Tehran’s key figures have responded to these increasingly severe warnings by dismissing them as foreign conspiracies. President Hassan Rouhani continues to oppose even a partial lockdown, claiming on Saturday that the calls to do so represent "a counter-revolutionary conspiracy to shut down offices and do harm to the country's economy." 

For his part, Supreme Leader Ayatollah made a point of rejecting American offers of humanitarian aid. On Sunday, Khamenei rhetorically asked, “Who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication? Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more." Khamenei also claimed that the U.S. had designed the virus to target Iran, asserting that it "is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians, which they have obtained through different means." As if to emphasize the point, Iranian authorities expelled a team of Doctors Without Borders on Monday. Alireza Vahabzadeh, an adviser to Iran’s health minister, said Iran does “not have a need for hospital beds set up by foreign forces.” 

The subordination of public health to political considerations has not gone without remark, either within Tehran or Washington. On Monday, Secretary Pompeo noted, “The U.S. has offered $100M+ in medical aid to other nations—including Iran—and our scientists are working 24/7 to develop a vaccine. [Ayatollah Khamenei] has rejected American offers and spends 24/7 concocting conspiracy theories. How does that help the Iranian people?” In Tehran, even other members of the ruling establishment have been harshly critical of the government’s response. Mahmoud Sadeqi, MP for Tehran, charged in a tweet that the government’s opposition to stricter measures was “fueled by delusion” and conspiracy-mongering, and noted that even Iranian experts insist that closures and social distancing are vital to curbing the spread of the virus.