‘Virus at Iran’s gates’: How Tehran failed to stop outbreak

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Appearing before the cameras coughing and sweating profusely, the man leading Iran’s response to the new coronavirus outbreak promised it was of no danger to his country.

“Quarantines belong to the Stone Age,” Iraj Harirchi insisted.

A day later, he himself would be in quarantine from the virus.

Harirchi’s story is a microcosm of what has happened in Iran amid the coronavirus pandemic. Roughly nine out of 10 cases in the Middle East come from the Islamic Republic, which has reported nearly 15,000 people infected and at least 853 deaths amid fears that cases may still be underreported. While most people who are infected recover, the virus spreads rapidly and can kill the elderly and those with breathing problems or other underlying illnesses.

Days of denials gave the virus time to spread in Iran as the country marked the 41st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution with mass demonstrations and then held a parliamentary election in which authorities desperately sought to boost turnout.

Although Iran has one of the Mideast’s best medical services, its hospitals appear to be overwhelmed and authorities have asked for 172 million masks from abroad. It also has asked the International Monetary Fund for $5 billion, the first such loan for Iran since 1962.

The Islamic Republic has an opportunity to limit the virus as the Persian New Year, Nowruz, approaches. But authorities appear unable or unwilling to stop travel between major cities as local towns affected by the virus threaten to set up their own checkpoints to turn away or even attack outsiders. That’s in sharp contrast to Iraq and Lebanon, Iranian allies that have restricted movement while facing a fraction of the reported infections.

What happens next will not only affect Iran’s civilian government and Shiite theocracy, whose officials already have fallen ill, but also the wider world.

“Judging by the fact that Iran has now asked for a $5 billion loan from the IMF, this speaks to how dire the situation is getting and them realizing that it’s spun out of control,” said Dr. Amir A. Afkhami, an associate professor at George Washington University who studies Iran.


In a country like Iran, where the state controls all broadcasters and journalists face restrictions, many things about the outbreak remain unknown. Chief among them is who was “patient zero” — the person who was first infected with the coronavirus in the nation, and where.

Public comments point to the city of Qom, 125 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Tehran, on the country’s windswept central desert plateau. How the virus arrived there remains in question.

Authorities suggested that perhaps an Iranian businessman returned from China with the virus. Qom is home to major Shiite seminaries that draw Chinese students. It also is along a $2.7 billion high-speed train route that a Chinese company is building, a sign of China’s outreach to Tehran amid crushing U.S. sanctions. China is also constructing a solar power plant there.

From late January, worries could be seen on the front page of the pro-reform newspaper Aftab-e Yazd.

“Mysterious virus at Iran’s gates,” its banner headline warned as China began a lockdown to control the outbreak.

Yet travel between China and Iran continued.

The first two coronavirus cases were reported Feb. 19, with the announcement that both died in Qom. Since it can take up to two weeks to show symptoms, they could have gotten it in early February.

Iranian authorities haven’t offered any details. Iran analysts suggest it might be because the country marked the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution during that period.

Iran also held parliamentary elections Feb. 21. The government desperately wanted a large turnout to boost its legitimacy after shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board. Days earlier, a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed top Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, further shaking its credibility.

Iranian authorities already had disqualified thousands of candidates from running, ultimately tilting the election to conservatives. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even later accused foreign enemies of trying to influence turnout with the outbreak.

“The pretext of an illness and virus was used, and their media did not miss the slightest opportunity to discourage people from voting,” he said.

The election saw Iran’s lowest turnout since the revolution, with some voters wearing the masks that everyone soon would want. But people already were dying and fear was spreading.