According to reports from the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, nearly 300,000 Iranians have lost their lives to the coronavirus pandemic, and outbreaks in the Islamic Republic show no sign of slowing down. Even Iranian state media outlets now acknowledge this latter fact, and at least one member of the Health Ministry’s coronavirus task force has said that hospitals are over capacity and could remain that way for weeks. However, the regime’s official narrative still includes a death toll that is only about a quarter of what the PMOI has calculated based on records and eyewitness statements from hospitals, morgues, local media outlets, and government institutions.
The lower estimate of around 75,000 fatalities reflects a pattern of disinformation that stretches back to the very beginning of the pandemic. The regime’s first public acknowledgment of domestic infections came in mid-February 2020, at which point officials claimed only a few individuals had died as a result of the novel coronavirus. But documents were later obtained by the PMOI which showed that Iran’s National Emergency Organization had registered cases as much as six weeks earlier. Furthermore, reports from hard-hit localities showed that dozens of Covid-19 victims were being held in one morgue even as authorities insisted that the national death toll was a single-digit number.
Tehran’s official reporting of infection and mortality rates eventually accelerated. But it is no surprise that it has always lagged behind the reality, having started so very far out of step. It is no clear how much of the Iranian population has actually taken state media reports on the pandemic seriously. Although information is tightly controlled inside the Islamic Republic, most of the country’s young and tech-savvy population has trained itself to use virtual private networks and pirate broadcast receivers in order to circumvent restrictions. For these people, the PMOI’s more accurate reporting is within reach, as are the organization’s statements advocating for coordinated action to hold Tehran accountable for this and other hardships imposed upon the country.
This latter category of communication is uniquely important at this moment, when Iran is anticipating an election that will determine the successor to President Hassan Rouhani. Although the final make-up of the ballot has yet to be determined, it has long been expected that the victor in that election would be an ultra-hardline figure, most likely the current Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi. This is not a matter of the Iranian people’s preference, but rather farcical nature of elections in the theocratic dictatorship. A body known as the Guardian Council is empowered to vet all candidates for high office and bar those deemed insufficiently loyal to the clerical supreme leader, and so even the “reformist” candidates that appear on the ballot are ultimately functionaries of the status quo.
Thus it came as no surprise to most Iranians, and certainly not to the PMOI, when the Rouhani administration failed to take any recognizable steps toward the reforms that it promised during the 2013 and 2017 campaign periods. In many ways, conditions inside the Islamic Republic had already become more difficult for ordinary people long before the coronavirus pandemic began. Then, once a crisis of public health was piled upon all the others, there was little chance of the Rouhani administration pushing back against the corruption and hardline conduct that would soon cause that situation to spiral out of control.
In the weeks before the regime’s acknowledgement of Covid-19 infections, leading authorities remained obsessed with propaganda, especially as a means of countering the damage done to their public image by a series of nationwide uprisings that began in December 2017. This obsession went beyond simply downplaying the coronavirus threat and included efforts to manufacture large-scale public gatherings which state media would portray as popular displays of solidarity with the regime around the time of its 40-year anniversary in early 2020.
There is little doubt that the Health Ministry, the office of the president, and the National Emergency Organization were all aware of the danger that this would pose in absence of any government efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus. And yet neither the president nor any of his fellow “reformists” pushed back against plans to deliberately put the population at risk. Afterwards, government interventions remained absent, with neither the “reformist” nor the “hardline” faction mustering assistance for people who were overwhelmingly too impoverished to remain in isolation and avoid work.
As the PMOI has repeatedly pointed out during the pandemic, Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps each wield direct control over hundreds of billions of dollars in assets, via front companies and so-called religious foundations. None of this has been made available to the civilian population, and yet Khamenei and the IRGC have both sought to expand their hoard of wealth on the backs of people affected by the crisis.
In March 2020, Khamenei urged the private sector to think of the Iranian New Year as the “year of boosting production” and to demand more of the labor force at a time when this was sure to exacerbate the threat to public health. Near the end of that year, and just ahead of Iran’s fourth wave, the IRGC took control of distribution for Iran’s woefully inadequate supply of vaccines, and it was soon revealed that doses were appearing on the IRGC-controlled black market with price tags as high as 2,800 US dollars.
These sorts of scandals underscored the common source of the public’s fundamental inability to overcome both the coronavirus and their society’s worsening economic conditions. Maryam Rajavi, the lead of the PMOI and its parent coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran, said in a March speech that the Iranian are facing “two viruses” in the forms of Covid-19 and the theocratic system founded on absolute clerical rule. Her further remarks emphasized that in order to cure the former, Iran will first have to root out the latter through regime change.
Even Iran’s Jahan-e Sanat daily newspaper published a commentary on April 25 that highlighted public recognition of the overlap among multiple crises, and the adverse impact this could have on political stability. “A large part of the society has boycotted elections due to mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis, economic woes, pressure on people’s livelihood, and officials’ negligence regarding the social events of January 2018 and November 2019,” he article said, concluding with a reference to the nationwide uprisings to which regime authorities responded with gunfire, killing more than 1,500 people.
The commentary went on to say that the persistence of these problems makes it unlikely that there will be significant turnout at next month’s presidential election. At least one other state media outlet went so far as to say that an electoral boycott would be a precursor to further social unrest. This is easy to imagine since prior unrest was largely driven by the PMOI, whose “Resistance Units” are currently hard at work in Iranian cities and towns promoting an electoral boycott as a means of “voting for regime change.”
A similar boycott proved very successful during Iran’s February 2020 parliamentary elections. At the time, Tehran was only beginning to mismanage the coronavirus pandemic, and now that the impact has been made plain in both mortality rates and economic impact, it stands to reason that the latest boycott effort will yield another historic low in voter turnout.