How a Coronavirus Outbreak Could Add to Iran’s Many Troubles

How a Coronavirus Outbreak Could Add to Iran’s Many Troubles
People wear masks to help guard against the Coronavirus in downtown Tehran, Iran, Feb. 23, 2020 (AP photo by Ebrahim Noroozi).
Iran has suddenly emerged as the principal focus of global infection for coronavirus outside of China. Just in the past few days, it has reported more deaths, 26, than any country after China, where 2,744 people have died from the highly infectious disease. More worryingly, Iran has only reported 245 cases of coronavirus as of Feb. 27—far fewer than Japan or South Korea, and even Italy—but those official numbers defy belief. They would put the mortality rate in Iran at more than 10 percent, significantly higher than the rest of the world. In the central Chinese province of Hubei, for example, the epicenter of this epidemic, the reported mortality rate is estimated at 2 percent. Either Iran has a much more deadly strain, or it is lying about the numbers of infected.

Observers in and out of Iran are convinced the government is lying, at great risk of a pandemic. Cases of coronavirus traced back to Iran have been identified over a wide span of the globe, from Afghanistan to Canada.

The outbreak in Iran, at the heart of the world’s most unstable region, has thrown a new and potentially explosive element of uncertainty into the Middle East. Iran was already facing steep challenges at home and abroad, from domestic dissent to a regional backlash against its influence to pressure from the United States. But the regime’s reaction to this public health crisis is likely to weaken its hand on all those fronts.

Iran’s response to the coronavirus so far has mostly been obfuscation. The regime delayed reporting its first cases and has persisted in downplaying the extent of the virus’ spread. After Iranian officials reported only a handful of cases, a member of parliament shot back that in his constituency alone, in the holy city of Qom, 50 people had already died. Rather than spring into action, Iran’s Health Ministry rejected those figures, and Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, tasked the prosecutor general with investigating the lawmaker’s claim. “Spreading untrue reports and hiding the truth both disrupt national security and undermine the social capital,” Shamkhani declared.

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