Iran’s ruling authorities divided over coronavirus crisis
Disagreements and tensions within Iran’s theocratic establishment have reached unprecedented levels. The regime has become significantly divided over the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, its severity and scope across the nation, and what concrete steps ought to be taken in order to handle the outbreak.
The number of people in Iran who have been infected with COVID-19 is staggering and continues to rise. This has created a deep gap between the senior officials who make the final decisions (including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the senior cadre of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Quds Force) and lower-level politicians and health officials.
One case in point is the battle between officials over the magnitude and scope of the crisis. The top officials continue to downplay the outbreak, which is posing a threat not only to the Iranian people but also the rest of the world. According to the official numbers, more than 20,000 people have been infected in Iran, while more than 1,500 have died. This is a significant spike in fatalities compared to two weeks ago.
But some of Iran’s lawmakers and health officials are, surprisingly, challenging the top officials’ efforts to minimize the scope of the crisis. For example, Massoud Pezeshkian, first deputy speaker of the parliament and a former health minister, recently criticized the government, saying that the official statistics were inaccurate. “The (official) numbers are not real because there are a number of patients who show no symptoms. We locate 95 (infected) people and two die, so we say two have died out of 100, whereas it may be that 2 percent of 10,000 have died.”
The unofficial number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Iran appears to be much higher than the authorities are acknowledging publicly. The actual death toll across all 31 Iranian provinces has exceeded 8,800, based on a report provided by oppositional group the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Iran’s regime has become significantly divided over the coronavirus crisis, its severity and scope across the nation, and what concrete steps ought to be taken in order to handle the outbreak.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
The political divisions can also be witnessed as Iran’s health authorities have been calling on the regime to lock down cities such as Gilan and Qom. They are warning the top officials that, if they do not take these steps, the number of fatalities will go up exponentially. Dr. Afruz Eslami, who is a medical doctor and a journalist, cited a recent study by Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, pointing out that if the “medical facilities are not sufficient, there will be 4 million cases, and 3.5 million people will die.”
Nevertheless, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, which is chaired by the so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani, continues to reject such calls and persists with downplaying the crisis. Rouhani, who has been appearing in public less frequently, has declined to acknowledge the gravity of the issue, saying at the beginning of the month that “everyone will have to resume work and production as of next week,” because “life will be back to normal.”
Furthermore, there has been a split over whether the government ought to accept foreign medical assistance. While some officials have been urging the government to seek help, it continues to decline to do so. A member of parliament, Bahram Parsai, said: “The reality goes beyond the (official) statistics… and if the world does not rush to the aid of our selfless doctors and medical staff, we will all be lost.” During a joint press conference with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the White House on March 12, US President Donald Trump offered to help the Iranian authorities fight the coronavirus, but Tehran rejected the offer as “hypocritical” and “repulsive.” “We do not need American doctors,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.
Instead of putting differences and disagreements aside in order to save its own citizens, Iran’s leadership is, unfortunately, playing the blame game. Tehran recently pointed a finger at the US, arguing that Washington’s sanctions are the reason behind the spread of coronavirus in Iran. But the reality is that the theocratic regime continues to lie, misreport the number of deaths and casualties, deliberately misinform the public, and handle the crisis with total incompetence.
Iran’s top authorities are also attempting to silence those who oppose them. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members have been threatening the families of those who died from the coronavirus, warning them not to report any details to the media. Even though many deaths in hospitals are linked to COVID-19, the IRGC has reportedly been encouraging medical staff to register the cause of death as anything but the coronavirus. The regime has also been secretly creating mass graves near the city of Qom to bury coronavirus victims.
As the COVID-19 virus continues to spread rapidly across Iran thanks to the regime’s incompetence, the divisions within the theocratic establishment are also deepening.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh