NEW YORK – If the leadership of the World Health Organization can spare a moment from their genuflecting to Beijing, they should direct their attention to another authoritarian state struggling to contain the coronavirus: Iran.
The Islamic Republic’s mismanagement of the contagion represents an imminent threat not only to Iranians but to all of the Middle East and Central Asia — and possibly, given the menacing nature of the microbe, the larger world.
Iran already accounts for more deaths from the virus than any country outside China. It is widespread: Cases have been reported from most of Iran’s provinces. The official death toll of 19 as of Thursday was almost certainly understated. An Iranian lawmaker had put the count at 50 in the holy city of Qom alone. Officials in Tehran dismiss this as an exaggeration, but they have even less credibility than Iran’s currency.
Iranians know not to trust their government, and reports from Tehran tell of a growing panic. This will get worse, now that the official responsible for managing the outbreak has admitted that he has himself contracted the virus. Only the previous day, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi had been underplaying reports of a government cover-up — at a news conference in which he was already showing signs of illness. To keep up the lie, Harirchi went on TV and made jokes about his coughing.
The mind boggles at the irresponsibility. It is hard to know how many scores, or hundreds, of people were exposed to Harirchi alone. But singling out the deputy minister for putting his body in service of his government’s policy of dissimulation may be unfair. Even after Harirchi’s revelation, President Hassan Rouhani was warning that the crisis could be an “enemy weapon” to hurt the Iranian economy. He refused to quarantine any city or district, disregarding appeals to lock down Qom, where the virus claimed its first Iranian victims.
We shouldn’t be surprised. The regime in Tehran has long regarded reckless endangerment — of its own citizens as much as of neighboring nations — as a governing precept. Its reflexive tendency to lie about crises, recently on display with the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner, adds credence to reports that the first signs of the outbreak were evident Feb. 13, six days before the government owned up.
Iran’s neighbors are as skeptical as Iranians of the regime’s claims. Most have already sealed off borders and canceled flights. In Iraq, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Lebanon, this came after the virus had already made landfall, carried by people arriving from the Islamic Republic.
But isolating the entire country is close to impossible. Iranians travel extensively across the Middle East and Central Asia, and not all of them use official routes. Nor can neighboring countries with governments beholden to Tehran — Lebanon, Iraq and Syria — be relied upon to enforce any bans.
Iraq is a particular worry. Its shrine cities attract droves of Iranian pilgrims, where they mingle with worshipers from across the Muslim world. The Shiite militias controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps care little for borders. Iraq is also an important export market for Iran. Other countries are sure to follow the example of Kuwait, which has suspended flights to and from Iraq as well.
But this piecemeal approach does not inspire much confidence, especially since Iranian authorities continue to conceal the true extent of the contagion. (The head of Qom’s medical university, himself in quarantine, has said he was ordered by the health ministry not to publish any data on the outbreak.)
Iran’s willful mismanagement of the crisis can no longer be overlooked. The international community must pressure the regime to get serious. To make sure this happens, the WHO should deploy medical teams across the country, to audit the government’s efforts to combat the virus and provide assistance where required.
For its part, the Trump administration should recognize the danger Iran’s incompetence represents to the wider world and waive sanctions on medical supplies and personnel, just as it has done for the Swiss banking channel for humanitarian aid.
The regime in Tehran may be sanguine about endangering its people and neighbors. The world cannot afford to be so blasé.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg columnist who writes on foreign affairs and focuses on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.