(Bloomberg Opinion) — How serious is Iran about its coronavirus epidemic? That depends on whether we believe the Islamic Republic’s words or actions — and, in some crucial aspects of crisis management, its inaction.
On the one hand, the regime in Tehran is asking for $5 billion in financial aid from the International Monetary Fund, ostensibly to fight the virus crisis. On the other, its proxy militias in Iraq have stepped up rocket strikes on military bases housing American and other NATO troops. President Hassan Rouhani has indicated more are coming.
This egregious belligerence against a country that has unique sway over IMF decisions is so obviously foolish, you have to wonder about the sincerity of the aid request. More likely, the regime is counting on a U.S. veto, so it can deflect blame for the crisis away from itself and on to the ever-reliable bogeyman.
Now, after weeks of denying the gravity of the crisis, the regime has begun to warn that it will kill hundreds of thousands — and possibly millions — of Iranians. State TV is citing a study by Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, which posits three scenarios: If people ignore official health guidance and travel restrictions, 120,000 will be infected and 12,000 will die; if there is “medium cooperation” with the warnings, there will be 300,000 cases and 110,000 deaths. If people ignore the guidance altogether, there will be 4 million cases, and 3.5 million deaths.
State television did not explain the metrics used in the Sharif University study. The figures imagine mortality rates — 10%, 36% and 87.5% — so far in excess of the World Health Organization’s estimate of 3.4% that they invite skepticism.
At the same time, regime officials have stepped up a campaign to blame American sanctions for the crisis. The not-so-subtle message: These deaths will be on President Trump’s head.
Exaggerating mortality rates and attributing them to sanctions is a familiar tactic. In the 1990’s, the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein claimed economic sanctions had spiked infant deaths. A 1995 letter to the respected medical journal The Lancet claimed that hundreds of thousands of children might still be alive were it not for sanctions. This claim was extrapolated from a Baghdad survey that relied on data from the Iraqi government. Two years later, after more fieldwork, the researchers retracted their previous results.
But U.N. officials continued to cite the high numbers, nonetheless. And in a macabre twist, British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2010 used the exaggerated figures to retroactively justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In 2017, a study by the London School of Economics concluded that reports of a doubling in Iraq’s child mortality after sanctions were imposed in 1990 were a “masterful fraud” by Saddam’s regime, “designed to provoke international condemnation and get the sanctions lifted.” The study showed that child mortality in Iraq was nearly twice as high as those of neighboring countries, but there had been no spike between 1991 and 2003, when Saddam was toppled.
Back to Iran: The Islamic Republic is unquestionably in the throes of a severe epidemic. The official figures, over 17,300 infected and 1,135 dead, bear this out. Nor is there any gainsaying that the country needs outside help — although, as I have argued, this should be in kind, rather than cash.
But the effort to exaggerate the crisis and to blame it on the U.S. suggests that the regime, even now, is unable to take the epidemic seriously.
Other signs abound. The Iranian government has not yet declared a national emergency, or even imposed a lockdown on the capital, which has the largest number of reported cases. It is not clear who is to lead the fight against the virus — Rouhani’s civilian administration or the military under Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has described the virus as a “biological attack” against Iran (no prizes for guessing the attacker) is exercising his perennial right to power without responsibility.
The Iranian regime’s actions — and inaction — in handling the virus crisis should guide the world’s response.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.
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