- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2020

Amid a global panic over coronavirus epidemic, Iran has stood out as a particularly problematic case, health experts say, and the government’s shaky response is not inspiring confidence.

At least 107 people have died from the virus, with over 3,000 others infected, state media announced Thursday. Uniquely, senior members of the theocratic regime and the national legislature have been infected, and many believe the government is covering up the true death toll from the outbreak.

Sources in local health and government offices within Iran suggest that over 1,000 people have died from the disease, as footage emerges of an overflow of bodies piling up in morgues.

Most infections and deaths have been reported in the holy city of Qom, which is believed to be the epicenter of the infections in the country — but officials have yet to quarantine the area.

Despite deep clashes over Iran’s nuclear and security policies, the Trump administration has offered to help Tehran manage the response to the coronavirus breakout in the country, but officials in Washington say Iranian officials have not accepted the assistance.

“We’ve made offers to the Islamic Republic of Iran and we make clear to others around the world and the region that assistance, humanitarian assistance to push back against the coronavirus in Iran is something that the United States of America fully supports,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.

He explained that Iran’s “health care infrastructure is not robust, and to date their willingness to share information about what’s really going on inside of [Iran] has not been robust.”

Iran’s official press has mixed praise of the government’s efforts with angry rebuttals of outside criticism from the U.S. and other countries. Iranian Health Minister Saeed Namaki announced Thursday that the launch of a nationwide mobilization plan that he said would include all 17,000 of the country’s health centers and the 9,000 medical and clinical centers in all cities, suburban areas and villages.

The country has temporarily shuttered schools and other education centers, and called off public gatherings such as concerts and sport events, the official IRNA news agency reported.

At least two Iranian senior government officials — including a well-known clerical aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — have died from the disease, and over 23 officials and members of parliament have contracted COVID-19, including Iran’s vice president and deputy health minister.

Critics of the regime say its secretiveness and defensiveness about the virus are a danger not just to Iranians but to the region and the world.

“The regime is a global threat in handling the coronavirus issue,” Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the Washington branch of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a leading exile dissident group, said Thursday. He accused the Iranian government of “covering up” the extent of the disease on the country.

“That shows you how the regime, in the most horrible way, [is] handling such a very serious epidemic threatening the lives of people,” he continued.

Iran has limited travel within the country in an attempt to slow the rapidly spreading disease. But as of Thursday evening, Iran’s Mahan Airlines was still conducting round-trip flight service to and from several cities in China, including Shanghai and Beijing, despite global warnings to pause the routes. The Iranian outbreak is believed to have originated with an Iranian businessman who returned to Qom after a trip to China, where the epidemic first broke out.

The crisis in Iran, which has more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any country outside of China, came in the wake of several crises that have rattled the pillars of the Iranian government, including months of protests over the faltering domestic economy, an escalating clash with the U.S. that resulted in the killing of a top Iranian general, and contested parliamentary elections in which many moderate candidates were blocked from running.

Health experts say Iran’s determination to hold the nationwide vote last month despite the rising infection dangers helped send the virus crisis spiraling out of control.

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

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