Foreign Policy:

The official statistics issued by Iran’s health ministry about the coronavirus pandemic, which report 23,049 people infected people and 1,812 deaths across the country as of March 23, are brutal enough. But there’s every reason to believe the real figures are much higher. Last Thursday, Kianush Jahanpur, an Iranian health ministry spokesman, tweeted that 50 people on average contract the virus in Iran almost every hour, and the fatality rate is one person every 10 minutes or six people per hour.

That sobering comment reflected earlier warnings by other Iranian health officials that the real tally of coronavirus infections and deaths is “definitely” higher than the government admits. Rick Brennan, an emergency director for the World Health Organization who recently visited Iran, said on March 17 that the actual overall COVID-19 toll could be five times higher than official statistics.

It’s indisputable that Iran, a country of around 83 million people, is one of the pandemic’s epicenters. Why exactly the crisis acquired such massive proportions in Iran is more complicated to address, but responsibility mainly lies with Tehran’s botched response, details of which are only now starting to come to light. There are growing indications that the Iranian government knew about the outbreak even as it avoided doing anything to stop it—or even inform the public about it. Meanwhile, the government’s judgment continues to be marred by a combination of cynicism and religious ideology.

As the coronavirus got officially underway in China through January with an ever-rising death toll, Iranian officials did nothing to stem travel between the two countries, in a seeming attempt to maintain strong diplomatic ties. In an interview on Feb. 4, Bahram Parsaei, a ranking member of parliament from Shiraz, complained that despite a government decision on Jan. 31 to supposedly suspend all Iran-China flights, some Iranian airlines not only carried on business as usual but also helped transfer China-bound passengers in other countries. He added that even Turkey had “canceled all China flights out of care for people’s lives” notwithstanding its heavy economic reliance on tourism, including Chinese tourists. Yet Mahan Air pressed on with Tehran-Beijing flights until as late as Feb. 23.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

On Feb. 19, the Iranian government publicly confirmed two deaths caused by COVID-19 in the religious city of Qom, which has a population of 1.2 million. International public health experts found it curious that Iran’s first official acknowledgment of the outbreak came in the form of a death, rather than any announcement of infection, which necessarily must have preceded. This suggests the virus may have already spread quite widely at the time of the announcement—and that Iranian officials may have known as much.

Giving further credence to that theory is the fact that on Feb. 15, four days before Iran officially reported its first coronavirus cases, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had a customary meeting with a group of religious eulogists, but unlike in past years, his security detail did not permit them to approach Khamenei and kiss his hand. “They didn’t let us kiss aga’s hand,” the eulogist Nariman Panahi later clarified, using a local appellation to refer to the supreme leader. “Why? [Does this mean] aga ignored us? No. Protection of aga’s life is obligatory for us.”

Thus while the Iranian government cared for the life of the supreme leader and took extra precautions to protect him from the coronavirus as early as mid-February, it failed to care for the lives of 83 million Iranians and prioritized its partnership with China over the nation’s public health.

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