Iran Warns of 'Enemy Plots' to Spread Coronavirus Fear As U.S. Questions Official Statements

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the country Tuesday that malicious efforts are underway to create hysteria about the new coronavirus outbreak, a warning that comes as the United States raised suspicions that the Islamic Republic was not being entirely truthful about the crisis.

Rouhani called on citizens to adhere to official guidelines in preventing the spread of the virus officially known as COVID-19 but added that the nation must continue to operate as usual to avoid aiding Tehran's adversaries. The president dismissed reports suggesting the coronavirus was out of the government's control, calling this "one of the enemy's plots to bring our country into closure by spreading panic."

"We all have to work, carry on with our activities and be careful," Rouhani said. "If we have a suspected case, we must take this person to one of our well-equipped hospitals." He vowed that Iran would return to a state of normalcy by this Saturday, unless there was a "special situation," and urged that "the truth about the virus needs to be told to the people."

But with Iran's officially confirmed cases surging to 95 and fatalities reaching 16—the largest outside of China, the disease's country of origin. U.S. officials have begun to question official statements coming out the Islamic Republic.

"The United States is deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country," Pompeo told reporters in Washington, adding that "all nations, including Iran, should tell the truth about the coronavirus and cooperate with international aid organizations."

Later Tuesday, a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek, "If anyone is to blame for the rapid spread of coronavirus in Iran, it is the Iranian regime itself."

"The regime is notorious for lying to its people, even at great risk to their safety and well-being. We saw this when the regime repeatedly lied and sought to cover up its grievous error in the shootdown of a civilian Ukrainian airliner in January, killing all 176 people onboard, including many Iranian citizens," the spokesperson said. "There are widespread reports that regime officials acted to conceal accurate information about this current outbreak."

iran, qom, holy, shrine, coronavirus
Iranian sanitary workers disinfect Qom's Fatima Masumeh shrine on February 25 to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus amid concerns the situation might be worse than officially acknowledged. The holy city has been identified as a national epicenter of the disease that has claimed at least 15 lives in Iran and infected dozens more. MEHDI MARIZAD/Fars News Agency/AFP/Getty Images

As of Tuesday, about 80,350 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 2,705 deaths have been recorded since the epidemic emerged in Wuhan, the capital of China's central Hubei province, according to Johns Hopkins University. The vast majority of cases and fatalities have been in China but South Korea, Italy and Iran have emerged as international hotspots for the contagion.

In the Islamic Republic, the holy city of Qom and its surrounding province has been identified as an epicenter, potentially carried in by Chinese nationals working there. When local parliamentarian Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani claimed Monday that Qom had already witnessed up to 50 deaths, Iranian Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi argued he would resign if even a quarter of that figure proved to be true.

On Tuesday, Harirchi, who had been seen coughing, sweating and blowing his nose on television, revealed that he had tested positive for the new coronavirus strain. In a video posted online, he told fellow Iranians that he has placed himself in quarantine and hoped to recover in a matter of weeks.

"I want to reassure you that we will defeat the coronavirus, I say this to you from my heart," Harirchi said. "Look after yourselves, they say this virus is a democratic one, it doesn't distinguish between rich and poor, between those in power and those not in power. It's possible that it will infect a number of people."

Tehran lawmaker Mahmoud Sadeghi also said Tuesday that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and that he now had "little hope of living in this world." He called for the release of security and political prisoners so that they may be with their families when they face the epidemic.

Sadeghi later posted a video message of his own in which he offered a more positive view of his diagnosis and the country's ability to overcome it.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also offered a message of support on social media, tweeting, "Like other viruses - incl terrorism - #COVID19 knows no borders and doesn't distinguish between ethnicities or faiths. To combat it, neither should we." He called for regional cooperation via the self-declared Coalition for Hope, or Hormuz Peace Endeavor, and the "long overdue Joint Center for Disease Control & Prevention."

While the United Arab Emirates traced last month's first confirmed coronavirus case in the Middle East to a family from Wuhan, other cases in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq and Oman have all been linked to Iran. As countries seal their borders and cancel flights to Iran, the Islamic Republic braces for further blows to an economy already isolated by U.S. sanctions that hamper the country's ability to battle the coronavirus, as Newsweek reported Monday.

The State Department spokesperson told Newsweek on Tuesday that "the United States is committed to ensuring that the Iranian people have access to food, life-saving medicines, and other humanitarian goods, while maintaining pressure on the Iranian regime to end its corrupt practices and malign activities across the region."

"We maintain broad authorizations that allow for the sale of food, agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices by U.S persons or from the United States to Iran," the spokesperson said. "In addition, U.S. sanctions laws provide similar exemptions for sales of food, agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices by non-U.S. persons to Iran."

The spokesperson referenced the first transactions last month of a Swiss-based payment system that facilitated the transfer of pharmaceutical goods valued at more than $2 million.

A Statista graphic shows the spread of the new coronavirus around the world as of February 25, according to Johns Hopkins University. Statista

While Washington has pledged support to the international fight against COVID-19, the White House showed no signs of rolling back tight trade restrictions imposed on Iran since President Donald Trump's 2018 exit from a multilateral nuclear deal. China and Russia continue to back the accord but Iran has reduced its commitments amid a lack of European trade and France, Germany and the United Kingdom have activated the agreement's dispute resolution mechanism in response.

Berlin, London and Paris have been joined by other European Union governments in pledging to support sanctions-dodging schemes but officials on both sides of the dispute have acknowledged to Newsweek that these systems would be unable in their current form to make up for U.S. sanctions relief. Additional pressure from Washington has also widened the gap between Iran and the West.

Heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran have spurred regional unrest, especially across Iraq and the greater Persian Gulf region. Their decades-long feud witnessed a major escalation last month with the U.S.' slaying of Revolutionary Guard Major General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad and Iran's retaliatory missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. personnel.

Iran has vowed to expel U.S. forces from the Middle East with the support of allied militias across the region. On Monday, however, military officials described a new mission: defeating the coronavirus.

Revolutionary Guard commander Major General Hossein Salami told Health Minister Saeed Namaki on Monday that the elite military group, especially its Basij paramilitary branch, stood ready "to provide any assistance and services to counter and prevent the spread of the coronavirus." Echoing this message, Iranian military chief of staff Major General Habibollah Sayyari met Tuesday with Namaki, vowing to utilize the army's assets in defeating the disease.

This article has been updated to include a statement provided by a State Department spokesperson.