The Iranian regime does not care about its people’s well-being. It cares even less for the well-being of those living outside Iran. If this was not clear from the entire range of that regime’s behavior over the past 41 years, it has surely been made clear by its response to the outbreak of coronavirus over the past month.
I, along with Iranian physicians, medical experts and nurses from 10 different locations around the world took part in an internet conference on this Sunday, March 28, the third such conference since March 8 discussing the start and spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Iran. Along with our colleagues, we published a report on various aspects of the virus spread in the country.
Iranian officials put the death toll at 2517 and total cases at close to 35000. But the real figures are much higher. The leading voices of domestic opposition to the regime revealed that Tehran has been covering up the real numbers. They put the death toll close to 13000 in 231 cities. This means that at least 100,000 people have been infected already.
The figure from the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) is the product of weeks of intelligence-gathering by its main constituent group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). That opposition garnered international attention in 2003 for revealing details of the regime’s clandestine nuclear program.
The opposition information has provoked public displays of frustration with the theocratic dictatorship. The MEK and NCRI were widely credited with helping to organize protests and popularize anti-regime slogans in December 2017 and again in November 2019 and January 2020.
Those nationwide uprisings tested the limits of the regime’s capacity for suppressing dissent. And although the latter incident led to some of the worst bloodshed the country has seen since the 1980s, it left the mullahs more vulnerable than they had been throughout that same period. The coronavirus outbreak adds to that vulnerability.
Our report emphasized that the uncontrolled spread of coronavirus has been “very costly to the regime” and that the public has “strongly rejected” the lame attempts at reassurance coming from both factions of mainstream politics.
Those reassurances are almost invariably built around disinformation. There was perhaps no clearer a demonstration of that fact than when Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi appeared on television to insist that the outbreak was under control, all while coughing, blowing his nose, and mopping fever sweat off of his forehead. Harirchi ultimately confirmed that he had tested positive for Covid-19, making him one of roughly three dozen government officials to do so. No less than one hundred among them have subsequently died, including a leading advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The mullahs can’t keep the disease from spreading like wildfire within their own ranks. This alone would surely cast doubt on the official estimates for the rates of infection and mortality.
What we mentioned in our report is that the rate of infection appears to be accelerating. The situation has been exacerbated by continued disregard for basic recommendations like closing the shrines in the city of Qom, the epicenter for the spread of infection not just inside Iran but throughout the region.
More than a dozen other countries have now reported local cases involving people who had recently traveled to Iran, most of them to Qom. It is increasingly clear that the regime’s mismanagement of the crisis is not just putting its own people at risk. It is also making the global response much more difficult to coordinate.
NCRI’s President-elect Maryam Rajavi affirmed that “the country’s medical and health care resources, which are monopolized by the ruling regime, the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and the security forces, must be put at the disposal of the Iranian people, hospitals, and physicians.”
Mrs. Rajavi also specifically called upon the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and other groups to put pressure on Iran’s theocratic rulers to end their harmful disinformation campaign and provide the tools necessary to safeguard the health and safety of the Iranian people.
There’s nothing else that foreign powers and human rights groups can do but state their case. Either the regime will recognize the need for a change of strategy, or it will hide from reality long enough to stoke even greater rage among its people. The ultimate outcome is likely to be the same: people will continue to gain leverage against that regime. As the COVID-19 crisis makes clear, the most pressing question is how many lives Tehran will be permitted to sacrifice in order to forestall that outcome.