Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asserted in remarks Tuesday that the ongoing Chinese coronavirus outbreak in his country is “not such a big tragedy” and one that Tehran can overcome through health “jihad.”
Khamenei added that the Islamic regime has addressed it with “sincerity” despite widespread complaints from even those within the government that the regime is lying about the number of cases.
Iran claims it has confirmed 2,336 cases of Wuhan coronavirus in the country and, among those, 77 people have died. These numbers differ significantly from what reports on the ground from dissident groups suggest. The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI /MEK), a dissident organization that relies on sources inside the country for its reports, claimed on Monday it had evidence of as many as 1,000 deaths due to the Chinese coronavirus nationwide. Multiple Iranian lawmakers have also alleged they have reason to believe the official government tallies are artificially suppressing the true number of cases.
“I feel it is my duty to once again thank these dear ones who are doing Jihad for the sake of God with their invaluable efforts,” Khamenei said in his remarks, which occurred during a tree-planting ceremony for Iran’s “Week of Natural Resources.” “I ask God to bring health to the sick, to grant His mercy on the deceased, and to bestow patience and tranquillity on their survivors.”
Khamenei said that any action that helps the virus spread “is a sin” and that all Iranian citizens must obey the Ministry of Health or face significant consequences. He attempted to portray the virus as a mild threat to the country not comparable to others the regime has faced in the past.
“The Coronavirus is not such a big tragedy and this country has surmounted graver ones. However, beseeching God, seeking intercession from the Prophet and his Household, and the prayers of the pure youth and pious are very effective in repelling major tragedies,” Khamenei claimed. “I don’t want to say it’s unimportant, but let’s not exaggerate it either. The Coronavirus will affect the country briefly & leave. But the experience it brings, and the actions of the people & the govt sectors, are like a public exercise that will remain as an achievement.”
The supreme leader also claimed, despite widespread reports to the contrary, that his regime has “reported with sincerity and transparency since day one” on the outbreak.
Various outlets translated Khamenei’s Farsi-language comments differently. Tasnim News, an Iranian propaganda outlet, appeared to differ somewhat from Khamenei’s official website, transcribing his description of a “public exercise” as a “war game,” much more bellicose language than Khamenei’s website translation.
Similarly, al-Arabiya, a Saudi network, translated “not such a tragedy” as “not that big of a deal,” which reads far more dismissively than the official translation. Saudi Arabia and Iran are regional rivals and Iran has continuously challenged Riyadh’s control of the holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina.
Khamenei’s insistence that Iran has offered “transparency” contradicts several remarks not just from opposition groups and dissidents, but from members of the Iranian government who have questioned the response to the outbreak. The first cases of coronavirus identified in Iran occurred in the city of Qom, which has high religious significance for Shiite Muslims and thus attracts many tourists. At press time, Iran has not yet offered an explanation for how the virus got there, as it originated in Wuhan, central China.
While Iranian health authorities claim slightly more than 2,000 cases nationwide, local officials have dismissed that number, stating it is impossibly low given how high the numbers are at the local level. One Iranian lawmaker, Gholam Ali Jafarzadeh Imanabadi, called the official tally “something like a joke,” asserting he had evidence that his native Gilan Province had hundreds of more cases than those counted. Mohammad Hossein Qorbani, a colleague of Imanabadi’s from the same province, has also accused the government of being too slow in offering test results, as all testing kits reportedly have to travel to Tehran and back to yield confirmation of coronavirus.
Iran is using homemade testing kits of questionable quality, according to President Hassan Rouhani, who proudly announced Iran was the only country making indigenous testing kits rather than asking for help from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Members of Iran’s Parliament are particularly infuriated with their government because 23 of them have tested positive for the virus, suggesting Tehran did little to protect their health. Also among the highest levels of the Iranian government, one of Iran’s several vice presidents and the head of coronavirus response have both tested positive for the virus. A senior adviser to Khamenei became the first casualty of the coronavirus in the government this week.
The Chinese coronavirus typically causes flu-like symptoms including difficulty breathing, coughing, body aches, and fevers. Some patients do not exhibit any symptoms at all, while others have more severe symptoms that evolve into pneumonia and death. The virus appears to more severely affect people over 60 and those with pre-existing health problems, though deaths have been recorded among those of all ages and conditions.