UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


COVID-19 - Iranian Response

Iran reported the highest number of coronavirus cases in the Middle East, many of them in Qom, home to several Shia shrines. While Saudi Arabia suspended access to Mecca for pilgrims on Umrah, Iran had not responded to increasing calls to limit access to Qom to halt the spread of coronavirus. Experts and some public officials have consistently cast doubt on the official coronavirus figures in Iran. While the official death toll from the virus for the whole country stood at 12 on 24 February 2020, a lawmaker from Qom said on the same day that 50 people had died from coronavirus in his city alone.

A lawmaker from Gilan province had also said that the death toll from coronavirus in Iran is “much higher” than the official death toll. “The number of people infected with coronavirus across the country could be between 10,000 to 15,000,” the semi-official ILNA news agency quoted the head of the city council's health committee Nahid Khodakarami as saying on 28 February 2020.

The extent of the outbreak has been astonishing, with leaders, top officials, lawmakers, senior clerics, and members of the country's Revolutionary Guard all growing ill. In one particularly jarring moment, Iraj Harirchi, Iran's deputy health minister, aggressively wiped sweat from his forehead during a press conference in which he downplayed the severity of the outbreak. He tested positive for COVID-19 the next day.

The Kiss of Death The Fatimah Masumeh Shrine, dedicated to the eponymous daughter of the seventh Imam, is one of the holiest sites in Shiism. By late February 2020 videos showing Iranians kissing and licking Shia shrines despite the risks of coronavirus had gone viral online, amid controversy over calls to close access to the shrines as the country continues to suffer from an outbreak of the deadly virus. In one of the videos, an unidentified Iranian man films himself walking inside the shrine. “In sacred places like this, there is no room for viruses, germs or diseases,” he says looking into the camera on the video filmed in the Fatima Masumeh shrine in the city of Qom. A second video shows a man at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, the second-most-populous city in Iran, saying he is there to lick the shrine: “so I can fall ill, this way I have removed the virus. You can come and visit.”

Iranians have posted several videos on social media, featuring devout Shiites licking holy shrines in defiance of the coronavirus. In some of the videos, worshippers say they are licking the shrines in order to infect themselves, thus protecting future pilgrims to the shrines from contracting the virus. On March 1, 2020, a pilgrim posted a video of himself licking the steel bars protecting the window of a Shiite shrine. He said that many people have “spread lies” that this window “contracted” corona, AIDS, hepatitis, and “such nonsense.” He said that he is licking the bars so the disease enters his body and future pilgrims will be safe. “I have now eaten the corona disease,” he said.

On March 3, Iranian authorities said two men shown in videos licking shrines had ignored government recommendations and could be jailed and flogged. Iran’s government also banned prayers on Friday, the one day of the week that Muslims are obliged to pray in a mosque.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called COVID-19 a “so-called virus” that was a scare tactic used by Iran’s enemies to prevent people from voting in Iran’s Feb. 21 parliamentary elections. Two weeks later, Khamenei’s message changed. “Don’t violate the recommendations and instructions of the responsible authorities in terms of prevention, in terms of keeping hands, face and living environment clean and not infecting these and preventing the infection of these,” he said on March 3.

The head of Iran's cyberpolice, Commander Vahid Majid, said on March 5 that 121 people had been summoned for spreading rumors about the coronavirus. He said 190 others had been warned over the phone and told to remove content from social-media pages. "Dealing with those spreading rumors and those publishing fake news is currently one of the most important missions of the cyberpolice," Majid said.

Iranian authorities announced the closure of the Imam Reza Shrine during Nowruz, which began on 20 March. The high court also declared a public ban on weddings and community or religious ceremonies where large crowds gather. Following the announcement of the immediate closure of both the Iman Reza and Fatimeh Masumeh shrines on the evening of 16 March, police were called in to disperse crowds who were attempting to storm the two sites.

Since announcing its first two COVID-19 deaths in the holy Shia city of Qom on February 19, Iran had taken a series of steps to contain the virus. It has closed schools and universities until early April, as well as four key pilgrimage sites, including the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom. Iran also cancelled the main weekly Friday prayers, and temporarily closed Parliament.

Hossein Salami, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), suggested on 05 March 2020 that the coronavirus might be an American biological weapon -- contradicting experts who say there's no evidence it could be man-made. "Today, the country is engaged in a biological battle," Salami was quoted as saying by the semiofficial ISNA news agency. "We will prevail in the fight against this virus, which might be the product of an American biological [attack], which first spread in China and then to the rest of the world," he said, adding that "America should know that if it has done so, it will return to itself."

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said 21 March 2020 he expected measures taken to combat the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus, including social distancing, to be eased within the next two to three weeks. Accusing "counter-revolutionaries" of attempting to shut down economic production, Rouhani said in a televised address his country "has to do everything" to return economic activity back to normal.

Iranian state media cited “chemical injuries” from the war with Iraq to be the cause behind the death of one official and the hospitalization of another. State media said in February 2020 that lawmaker Mohammad Ali Ramezani died of “chemical injuries.” The semi-official Fars news agency reported weeks later that Ramezani died of coronavirus. The semi-official ILNA news agency had also reported in March 2020 that Industry Minister Reza Rahmani was hospitalised due to “chemical injuries,” denying reports that he had been infected with coronavirus. Hojatoleslam Abolghassem Erami, a former Friday Prayers leader in Ghamsar, was among chemical-weapons victims who have died after contracting the coronavirus.

There is growing concern about the danger COVID-19 posed to tens of thousands of victims of chemical weapons who suffer from respiratory problems and lung diseases. An estimated 100,000-150,000 Iranians survived chemical-weapons attacks by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and many are disabled by chronic illnesses caused by exposure to mustard and nerve gas.

The state Foundation for Martyrs and Veteran Affairs said in a February 26 statement that veterans of chemical-weapon attacks are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, while calling on them and their families to take protective measures, including washing their hands and staying away from people with flu-like symptoms.

A video circulating on social media showed a large number of empty graves in the Shia holy city of Qom ready for mass burials, suggesting the death toll from coronavirus is higher than what Iranian authorities claim. “This is the ‘crisis’ section of the cemetery. This is only one part of it. There is another part higher up. There are graves as far as an eye can see. They are ready for burials,” the man filming the cemetery is heard saying. The video is from Qom’s Behesht-e Masoumeh cemetery. The head of the cemetery, Seifoddin Mousavi, confirmed the existence of a section dubbed “Crisis” at the cemetery. He claimed, however, that this section was built during the past four years rather than after the coronavirus outbreak.

Qom Cemetary Qom Cemetary Qom Cemetary

Satellite imagery published March 12 showed 100-yard trenches apparently meant to bury coronavirus victims. Analysts said the size of the pits and the speed of their excavation showed that the problem was unique — typical Iranian burial practices involve individual and family plots. Instead, these newly dug trenches are row after row of graves covered in lime to block the smell of decaying bodies.

Iran's supreme leader refused U.S. assistance 22 March 2020 to fight the new coronavirus, citing an unfounded conspiracy theory that the virus could be man-made by America. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei chose to traffic in the same conspiracy theory increasingly used by Chinese officials about the new virus to deflect blame for the pandemic. “I do not know how real this accusation is but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication?" Khamenei said. "Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more.” He also alleged without offering any evidence that the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means.” He said “You might send people as doctors and therapists, maybe they would want to come here and see the effect of the poison they have produced in person". Khamenei made the comments in a speech in Tehran broadcast live Sunday across Iran marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Khamenei also spoke of “demons” conspiring against Iran on live TV. This part of his speech was omitted from state news agencies. “There are enemies who are demons, and there are enemies who are humans, and they help one another. The intelligence services of many countries cooperate with one another against us,” Khamenei said.

“There is no doubt that the Jews, especially the Zionists, are very much after such supernatural affairs, and are after demon and devil related affairs. Even their spy agencies, like the Mossad, are involved. There is plenty of evidence,” said Abedi as quoted in IranWire. Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen, accused the US and Israel of being behind the coronavirus outbreak “for profit” on the same day as Khamenei’s speech. “It is possible that the Zionist lobby spread a pandemic and created a vaccine for treatment in exchange of immense profit,” the Houthi leader said. “Some American companies are known to have created a pandemic after preparing a vaccine for it to sell it in very large amounts,” he added.

Fears Iran would serve as a launching pad for the coronavirus pandemic, potentially wreaking havoc on the Middle East, are coming true, according to U.S. officials, who pointed to a growing volume of evidence. The State Department 23 March 2020 accused Iran of transmitting the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, to multiple countries, saying that, in at least five instances, a country’s first case of the virus was “directly imported from Iran.”

“The Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters. “The regime continues to lie to the Iranian people and the world,” Pompeo added in a statement. “They put Iranians and people around the world at greater risk.”

Iran COVID-19At least 17 Iranian regime figures have died from coronavirus and 12 others have been infected since the beginning of the outbreak in the Islamic Republic, according to reports by state media outlets. As of 24 March 2020, 1,934 in Iran have died from the coronavirus, and there are 24,811 confirmed cases. Former Iranian lawmaker Hamid Kahram also died from coronavirus, state media reported on March 19. Kahram was the head of current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s campaign in Khuzestan province during the 2017 presidential election. Ayatollah Hashem Bathaei-Golpaygani, a member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, also died from coronavirus.

Other notable confirmed deaths from the virus in the Iranian regime include former ambassador to Syria Hossein Sheikholeslam, former lawmaker Mohammadreza Rahchamani, lawmakers Fatemeh Rahbar and Mohammad Ali Ramezani, Expediency Council Mohammad Mirmohammadi, and former ambassador to the Vatican cleric Hadi Khosroshahi. The virus had also infected at least 12 regime figures in Iran, according to reports by state media outlets.

Iranian media report that by late March 2020 nearly 300 people have been killed and more than 1,000 sickened so far by ingesting methanol across the country, where drinking alcohol is banned and where those who do rely on bootleggers. An Iranian doctor helping the country's Health Ministry told The Associated Press on 27 March 2020 the problem was even greater, giving a death toll of around 480 with 2,850 people sickened. The poisonings come as fake remedies spread across social media in Iran, where people remain deeply suspicious of the government after it downplayed the crisis for days before it overwhelmed the country.

"Other countries have only one problem, which is the new coronavirus pandemic. But we are fighting on two fronts here," said Dr Hossein Hassanian, an adviser to Iran’s Health Ministry who gave the higher figures to the AP. "We have to both cure the people with alcohol poisoning and also fight the coronavirus.” He said "Unfortunately in some provinces, including Khuzestan and Fars, deaths from drinking methanol has exceeded the number of deaths from the new coronavirus".

The US pandemic death toll by 20 April 2020 was heading above 50,000 compared with Iran's figure of 5,300. Considering the respective population numbers of 330 and 80 million that suggested Iran was doing a much better job at containing the virus. On a per-capita basis, according to publicly available data [which is probably unreliale], Iran's mortality rate was less than half that of the US. This came as the US had sanctioned Iran to the hilt. American sanctions hit Iran's ability to import medical supplies to cope with COVID-19 and other fatal diseases, yet Iran through its own resources was evidently managing the crisis rather better than the US.

President Hassan Rohani said mosques are to resume daily prayers throughout Iran, even though some areas are facing a rise in coronavirus infections. "Doors to mosques across the country will open to public for daily prayers," Rohani said on May 30, adding that health protocols should be observed. He did not say when the eased measures would take effect. Rohani also warned Iranians against believing that the country was rid of the virus, emphasizing that it was here to stay.

Iranian authorities gradually eased restrictions put in place to contain the Middle East's deadliest outbreak of coronavirus, which had killed over 7,700 people and infected nearly 150,000, according to official figures. The real numbers are believed to be significantly higher.

According to official numbers, which many experts suggested were largely underestimated, By July 2021 over 86,000 Iranians had lost their lives to Covid-19. The country was severely impacted by a fifth wave of the pandemic, exacerbated by the spread of the Delta variant.

Since December 2020, Iranian political leaders have been promising to unroll a mass vaccination campaign using domestically produced vaccines. Iran’s health ministry said they would be providing Iranian vaccines starting this spring. But so far, the vaccines available to Iranians have been Sputnik V from Russia, Sinovac and Sinopharm from China and AstraZeneca vaccines produced in India. But supplies have not been sufficient to meet the demand for vaccines in Iran. On 10 July 2021, Iran’s Health Minister Saeed Namaki announced, “From tomorrow, we will inject 400,000 vaccines each day.” However, according to Iranian media, only around 51,000 doses have been administered daily since then.

Iran’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign was rife with complications: videos shared online show queues up to a hundred metres long as people wait for hours to be vaccinated, with doses sometimes running out long before everyone receives their jab. Others show thousands of people rushing to the border with Armenia in search of a dose. These predicaments are the result of political rivalries and the failure of Iran’s vaccine strategy.

In Iran, a country of 82 million people, by July 2021 only 4.7 million people had received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while just 2.2 million are fully vaccinated. So far, people 60 years of age and older are the only ones eligible for vaccination. Videos shared online show elderly men and women waiting in line for hours before they can get vaccinated. Many others – mostly young, middle-class Iranians who are not yet eligible for vaccination and don’t expect to receive their vaccines in Iran anytime soon – have found their solution abroad, either in Dubai or Armenia, the northwestern neighbour of Iran which is easily reached by plane or car. Normal people feel that they have been left alone in face of the multiple deadly waves of Covid-19 and have no hope to get the vaccine in their country any time soon,

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, during a short speech in January 2021, banned “western-made vaccines” from the United States, United Kingdom and even France [France is developing a Sanofi-GSK vaccine which was not yet in distribution as of mid-2021]. Eighteen different Iranian companies have submitted their vaccine licenses in Iran. If we look closely, only two or three companies are scientific ones, the others belong to different political and power factions in Iran. The most important group among them is the Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive, also known as Setad, which is making the COVIran Barekat vaccine.

Setad is one of the most powerful and richest semi-governmental bodies in Iran, created in 1989 by Rohollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and now directly controlled by current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Setad, which is valued at around $95 billion, was sanctioned by former US president Donald Trump in June 2019. Setad has promised to provide more than 50 million Barekat vaccines by September 2021, but as of July 2021, none had been delivered.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list