Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) hosted a funeral attracting thousands for Hossein Assadollahi, a senior terrorist leader and veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, on Monday.
Photos and video of the ceremony – which attracted notably minimal attention in Iranian state media outlets like PressTV, the Fars News Agency, and others – show mourners tightly packed in public spaces, a prime location to infect a large number of people with a contagious disease. As the world faces a pandemic caused by the Chinese coronavirus originating in central Wuhan, public health experts have universally agreed that “social distancing” – avoiding contact with individuals as much as possible and abstaining from organizing into large groups – is necessary to slow the rate of infection of the coronavirus so as to not overwhelm the world’s healthcare systems.
Iran’s healthcare system has, by all measures, been overwhelmed for months. While Iran claims only 24,811 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country and nearly 2,000 deaths, reports citing whistleblowers and dissidents in the country have published evidence suggesting the death toll is much higher. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the largest Iranian dissident group, announced on Tuesday that it had documented over 10,500 deaths at the hands of the virus in Iran, citing sources within the country.
The NCRI also noted an increase in the number of arrests of people for “spreading rumors” about the true extent of the outbreak.
The Iranian regime has largely responded to the outbreak by empowering the IRGC, a U.S.-designated terrorist group and not a medical organization, to lead the nation’s coronavirus response. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has claimed the Chinese virus is a biological weapon, implying the United States deliberately spread it in Iran. This weekend, Khamenei rejected a U.S. offer of humanitarian aid, partially on the grounds that he claimed America could use the aid to spread more “poison” in the country.
Assadollahi reportedly died last Friday; the Iranian regime announced his death was a result of “a long battle with health complaints caused by chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980s,” according to the Kurdish outlet Rudaw. Rudaw notes that, while the death notice did not mention the spread of the Chinese coronavirus, exposure to chemical weapons debilitates the lungs and those with preexisting health conditions are far more vulnerable to serious illness and death if infected.
The funeral flooded the streets of Vardavard, near Tehran, and featured a procession largely composed of IRGC terrorists and civilians likely forced out of their homes to participate. It appeared in photos similar in tone to the recent funeral of IRGC Quds Force commander Major General Qasem Soleimani, eliminated from the battlefield by a U.S. airstrike in January. Iranian officials noted that Soleimani and Assadollahi were comrades in arms.
The procession, bringing together thousands of people at a time in which health experts are urging all to stay home, prompted a resigned comment on Twitter from Kianush Jahanpur, a spokesman for the nation’s Health Ministry.
“The pictures speak for themselves. We can only cry,” he wrote. “Perhaps this is a new medical protocol for funerals and new restrictions for mass gatherings.”
— Kianush Jahanpur (@drjahanpur) March 23, 2020
Unlike the rest of the government, Jahanpur has painted a dire picture of the outbreak, stating last week that one person was dying of coronavirus every ten minutes in Iran.
Radio Farda, the Persian outlet affiliated with Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), noted that several Iranian media outlets faintly expressed disapproval of the funeral, but not in any way that would compromise their ability to continue publishing, as the authoritarian Islamic regime censors all disapproval.
The IRGC appeared to reply to the general sense of concern among Iranians – and the Iranian Health Ministry publicly lamenting the display – by denying that they had anything to do with it.
“The IRGC had no plan to hold a funeral for commander Assadollahi … the presence of a small number of people, his comrades and his supporters … was spontaneous,” spokesman Ramazan Sharif reportedly claimed.
The IRGC are largely tasked with combatting the coronavirus outbreak in the country. Khamenei ordered them to stage “biological defense exercises” this week to fight the virus. The IRGC also claims to be developing a vaccine against it, despite being an organization made up of jihadists that has not previously contributed to the advancement of medical science.
The U.S. State Department accused the Iranian regime on Monday of being irresponsible with handling the virus and allowing it to spread in the Middle East, a volatile region with weak healthcare systems, millions of displaced people, and constantly battling rival violent groups.
“The Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters while in Afghanistan. According to Pompeo, five nations around the world now have coronavirus cases as a direct result of Iranian travelers crossing their borders.