LONDON: Since the identification of coronavirus (COVID-19) in late 2019, Iran has become one of the center stages of the ferocious pandemic.
But where some countries have sought to inform others to help curb the spread, Tehran has sought to obfuscate with a campaign of misinformation.
Iran’s official death toll, as of March 21, stands at 1,556, with almost 21,000 confirmed cases.
But independent estimates dispute this. On Feb. 23, a paper by academics at the University of Toronto, which studied the number of cases discovered in other countries caused by people traveling from Iran, put the likely number of Iranian cases at 18,300.
That was a month ago, with the projected pattern of growth estimated at around a third every day.
That predicted growth is supported by other estimates. In an article in The Atlantic on March 9, the number of Iranian politicians reporting symptoms of the virus (including a number who had died from it) was put at just under 8 percent of all Iranian MPs.
This was mirrored by an official government website survey, which asked people to report symptoms unofficially (without having had an official diagnosis), which came in at 9 percent of the 2 million people who responded.
It has not just been estimates that statisticians have had to go on. Following reports of an outbreak in the country’s prisons, Tehran released on furlough 85,000 criminals and political prisoners, including British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with another 10,000 set to be released.
Meanwhile, hospitals in Golestan province, an area of the country accounting for just 2.2 percent of the population, reported in early March that they were operating at well over capacity on account of patients bearing all the symptoms of COVID-19.
If replicated nationwide, the various studies and reports suggest that between 1 million and 2 million Iranians could have the virus.
Satellite images showing the digging of mass graves outside the city of Qom — where the Iranian outbreak was first traced to — do little to dispel that view.
But it is not just the figures themselves that Iran has been unwilling — or unable — to be honest about.
It has also played fast and loose with the cause of the outbreak, and has cracked down hard on those trying to tell the truth.
The Iranian epidemic began amid the buildup to controversial elections in which thousands of moderate candidates were barred from standing.
The elections were an important test for Tehran, off the back of a turbulent few months fueled by the return of sanctions imposed by US President Donald Trump, civil unrest against the regime, the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American drone strike in January, and the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet over Iran’s capital days later.
Fearing a low turnout from an already skeptical public, the regime suggested that the danger of COVID-19 had been overplayed by the US in an attempt to suppress turnout.
“The ruling system wanted to make sure they could go ahead with their election plans last month to show the world that the system is working fine and has people’s support,” Saeed Aganji, an Iranian journalist, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
That recklessness in itself is suspected of playing a part in spreading the virus. But the idea that the hand of the US could be sensed in the outbreak was not limited to the election.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — which suffered the physical loss of Soleimani, and a severe loss of face in the aftermath of the shooting down of the Ukrainian jet and its role in the violent repression of dissent in the weeks before and after the incident — has leapt upon the idea of using COVID-19 as a propaganda tool.
“The IRGC jumped on Iran’s coronavirus crisis to resuscitate its appeal and extreme Islamist ideology — even if this means playing with people’s lives and spreading the virus further,” Kasra Aarabi, an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, told Arab News.
“This has ranged from conspiracy theories calling COVID-19 an American and Zionist ‘biological ethnic weapon’ designed to target DNA, to adapting wartime propaganda from the Iran-Iraq war showing IRGC fighters side-by-side with medical professionals in an attempt to co-opt public sympathy for doctors and nurses,” he said.
“It has even gone as far as glorifying death by the pandemic, by creating ‘martyrs’ out of those who’ve been killed by it in an attempt to mask the regime’s incompetence through an ideological, religious narrative,” he added.
“There’s evidence that the IRGC’s propaganda is being shared across different mediums, from social media platforms to state TV, posters and flyers. These are familiar IRGC methods, but it’s clear that they see some value in using them around coronavirus right now with two objectives: Depicting themselves as the nation’s heroes, and demonizing their ideological enemies, the US and Israel.”
To facilitate this narrative and avoid scrutiny, the regime has taken a hard line on press freedom.
As well as blocking news outlets from reporting anything beyond state statistics, it has also, according to the CPJ, arrested and threatened journalists, confiscated their equipment, forced them to delete and amend articles, and removed their access to social media.
One journalist told the CPJ: “I was told not to portray the situation negatively in my writings, and instead show support for the government’s efforts, otherwise, I will face consequences.”
Aarabi said: “The Iranian people are well versed in these tactics, which means these propaganda efforts will ultimately fail. The regime’s handling of coronavirus, which includes denial, conspiracy theories and cover-ups, has only added fuel to the fire of Iranian grievances.”
He added: “After more than 40 years, the regime’s anti-US, anti-Israel rhetoric has lost traction with the Iranian people, who by and large blame the regime for domestic ills.
“The IRGC’s cynical use of COVID-19 is likely to have little effect in swaying Iranian popular opinion. While it’s seeking to depict itself as the savior of the nation during this crisis, the majority of Iranians will see straight through this. The IRGC is trained to kill, not to save lives — and the Iranian people, the main victims of its violence, are well aware of this.”