Iran admits to under-reporting coronavirus figures as it faces biggest crisis since 1979

“Rohani is risking a rebound of the virus. Iran could end up with an economic crisis and a health crisis at the same time," said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre.
Sunday 19/04/2020
Iranian Army soldiers wearing protective masks take part in the army day parade in Tehran, April 17. (AFP)
On the PR front. Iranian Army soldiers wearing protective masks take part in the army day parade in Tehran, April 17. (AFP)

LONDON - Despite previous denials, Iranian officials are starting to admit that their government has been under-reporting the country’s toll from the pandemic, amid signs that Iran is facing the biggest economic crisis since the 1979 revolution.

The growing problems at home could fuel adventurism abroad. The United States said on April 16 that speed boats of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) harassed US warships in the Gulf.

Iranian Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi was quoted on April 15 as saying that, because of limited testing capabilities, the real number of COVID-19 infection cases and deaths in Iran cannot be ascertained. But “the real numbers are much higher than the official figures,” he said.

The admissions could betray internal dissent over President Hassan Rohani’s intent to gradually reopen the economy over fears that prolonged confinement measures could drive social unrest. On Rohani’s orders, “low-risk businesses” in the capital Tehran were allowed to re-open on April 18, a week after some companies in other parts of the country. Authorities used a parade marking Army Day on April 17 to exhibit disinfection and protective capabilities against COVID-19.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said Rohani has stressed the need to get the economy back on track, while the health ministry has been advocating for a more careful approach.

“Rohani is risking a rebound of the virus. Iran could end up with an economic crisis and a health crisis at the same time,” Fathollah-Nejad said by phone.

A parliamentary report reviewed by the Associated Press said the death toll in Iran from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be nearly double that of officially reported figures.

It attributed the inaccurate count to under-counting and because not everyone with breathing problems has been tested for the virus.

Iran, on April 18, put the death toll at more than 5,000, out of over 80,000 confirmed cases – still making it the Middle East’s worst outbreak by far.

But the report’s worst-case figures would put Iran’s potential death toll as high as over 8,500, with some 760,000 total cases, as of April 15. That would catapult Iran to the position of the country with the highest number of infections in the world.

International experts have long doubted Iran’s numbers, as its mortality rate has been higher than other nations.

The economic impact of the coronavirus on Iran is likely to be devastating, said Amin Mohseni-Cheraghlou, an economist at the American University in Washington.

“The Iranian labour market was already suffering from high unemployment rates before the pandemic, especially among college-educated youth,” Mohseni-Cheraghlou wrote in an analysis for the Middle East Institute in Washington. “In the best-case scenario, the estimated economic contraction in 2020 will put 3-4 million jobs at risk, potentially pushing the actual (not official) unemployment rates from around 20% now to more than 35% in just a few months.”

Nader Hashemi, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver in the United States, said the global collapse of oil prices was “another big problem for Iran.”

“Even if US sanctions were lifted now, the drop in value of the oil that Iran would be able to sell would mean that the country would still be economically vulnerable,” Hashemi said by phone.

Mohseni-Cheraghlou said the crisis could trigger fresh unrest in Iran.

“The Iranian government now faces one of the worst crises – if not the worst – since the 1979 revolution, and there is very little it can do to address the economic fallout,” Mohseni-Cheraghlou wrote.

Efforts by the US to increase pressure on Iran by sharpening sanctions or blocking Rohani’s request for a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) could end up strengthening domestic support for the regime, he added.

“If history provides any guide, Iranians tend to unite during times of exogenous shocks and crises, especially if such crises are exacerbated and exploited by hostile outside forces,” he wrote.

“This may explain why, despite the growing unpopularity of Rohani’s government, its widespread mismanagement of the economy and the pandemic and the resulting economic and public health crises, there is as yet no sign of social unrest.”

But experts believe that the presence of all such factors means that it is just a matter of time before discontent comes into the open.