Paris (AFP) – Even according to official figures, the coronavirus epidemic has killed over 1,800 people in Iran, prompting unprecedented measures that have included closing holy Shiite shrines.
But could the authorities in the Islamic republic be underplaying the severity of the COVID-19 epidemic and the challenge in fighting it?
The crisis has come as the country faces one of its most troubled periods since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, with Iran increasingly estranged from the international community and its economy battered by American sanctions.
Going by official data, Iran is the fourth-worst hit country after Italy, China and Spain. Health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour has described an uptick of 50 new cases per hour and a new death every 10 minutes.
But Persian language media outside Iran, citing figures from regional sources, claim even this grim toll is a lowball.
On Saturday, the Prague-based, US-funded Radio Farda said at least 660 more people have died than the official tally.
And the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), outlawed in Iran, has claimed the real death toll could be as high as 8,800.
– ‘Only when it got serious’ –
“This is a regime that is founded on keeping things hidden,” said Azadeh Kian, a professor of sociology at the University of Paris.
“It is only when it became very serious that they started to even talk about the coronavirus.”
She said she had been told by Iranian sources that the first deaths were officially ascribed to breathing difficulties and not coronavirus.
Deputy health minister Reza Malekzadeh has himself admitted Iran was not quick enough to admit the presence of the virus, which was only acknowledged on February 19 despite having been in circulation since January.
Iranian authorities have recently been accused by governments and activists of hiding the truth on a succession of issues.
Tehran has been charged with failing to disclose an allegedly significant death toll in a crackdown on anti-government protests in November, and of only admitting the downing in January of a Ukrainian airliner once the evidence and pressure became too overwhelming to ignore.
Its economy has been pushed to the brink of catastrophe by American sanctions, which Iranian officials denounce as criminal amid the coronavirus epidemic.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has described restrictions on Iran’s ability to import medicine and medical equipment as “economic terrorism”.
“It was one of the best health systems but now there are no longer the means to buy the vaccines, the masks and essential health products,” said Azadeh Kian.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has batted away US offers of help — which have not included relaxing sanctions — saying the Americans could “bring into our country a drug that will keep the virus alive”.
– ‘Can’t hide any more’ –
Thierry Coville, Iran specialist at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said the authorities initially tried to hide any sign of weakness amid mounting tensions with the United States.
But he said the COVID-19 crisis appears to have been taken more seriously in recent weeks.
“I have the impression that we hear the health officials more and more and not the politicians,” he said.
“The government is beginning to understand that you have to let the specialists talk.”
President Hassan Rouhani last month accused the United States of spreading “fear” over the virus, and insisted Iran had the situation under control.
Moreover, despite the restrictions of Iran’s theocratic system, debate can sometimes be surprisingly open with some moderate newspapers prepared to criticise the government and a well-educated population plugged into the Internet.
“If the crisis turns into a catastrophe, they will not be able to hide it any more,” said Coville.
The threat became even more acute as Iranians celebrated New Year on March 20 — a time devoted to family meetings and travel which risk spreading the virus.
“It does appear they are probably understating, publicly anyway, the severity of the crisis,” said Seth Jones, director of transnational threats at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
And even if the government is honest with the numbers, many fear it could be covering up the scale of the challenge of responding to the crisis.