Iranian leadership split into factions over downplaying of coronavirus numbers

The coronavirus has become the focus of an internal battle within Iran between the government of President Hassan Rouhani and the Revolutionary Guard controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei. Rouhani reportedly wants to do more to slow the spread of the virus while Khamenei and the Guard have decided they want to save face by downplaying the real numbers and claiming Iran is doing well.

“[The Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard have been downplaying the extent of the COVID problem since the initial outbreak hit their guys hard in Qom at the start of the outbreak,” said a regional intelligence official in the Middle East who does not have permission to speak about a top military rival…

“Any of the numbers the Iranians have put out since late April are considered extremely suspect because we have indications that the Revolutionary Guard — which means this comes from Khamenei’s office directly — are not reporting cases from its health and military infrastructure and possibly intimidating reporting from other areas as well because the leadership has decided this is a national security issue, where too many cases will make Iran look inept and weak in the face of American pressure,” one source told Insider.

So what are the real numbers that Iran is trying to hide? Wednesday the Associated Press published a story about the regime’s efforts to hide the real coronavirus numbers. The AP cited a report connected to Iran’s parliament which suggests the real numbers of cases could be 10 times the official count:

Official government figures show that around 100,000 people were infected by the virus and around 6,500 have died. But a report by the research arm of Iran’s parliament said the number of cases could be eight to 10 times higher, making it among the hardest hit countries in the world. The report said the number of deaths could be 80 percent higher than officials numbers from the Health Ministry, about 11,700.

The clamp down on the real numbers came directly from the Revolutionary Guard:

The feared paramilitary Revolutionary Guard kept health facilities under tight control and medical statistics were treated as top secret, the medical staffers said.

Death certificates were not recording the coronavirus as the cause of deaths — either because not all severe cases were tested or just for the sake of keeping the numbers down. Thousands of unaccounted deaths were attributed to secondary causes like “heart attack” or “respiratory distress.”

And a doctor in Tehran said the Health Ministry gave orders not to refer critical cases to hospitals to be tested for the virus — to keep the numbers low, she said…

A nurse at Shafa Hospital in the provincial capital of Rasht said ventilators were removed from dying patients to let others live.

“Death certificates were written before they died,” the nurse said with a hoarse voice. On the death certificates, the doctor scribbled, “heart attack” or “respiratory distress” as a cause of death.

But Business Insider reports that Rouhani is trying to regain some control because of the series of unrelated failures which have put the Guard in a terrible light. The first was the shooting down of a Ukrianian passenger jet full of Iranian citizens. More recently, a military test of a ship-to-ship missile resulted in the death of 19 Iranian sailors when their ship was struck by accident instead of the intended target.

“They have refused to say if the missile test last Sunday was the IRGC or the proper Iranian Navy, but it’s assumed that a high-profile test of a high tech weapon system in plain view of all their enemies in the Gulf would have only been a Revolutionary Guard production. But the incident as well as the tragedy in January with the airliner has given Rouhani a legitimate claim that the Guard is failing at both its international responsibilities with these failures as well as poorly responding to COVID,” said the regional intelligence source.

Finally, even the official numbers aren’t trending the way Iran wants them to.

Iran on Friday reported its highest number of new coronavirus infections in more than a month as it warned of clusters hitting new regions.

Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said 2,102 new cases were confirmed across the country in the past 24 hours, bringing the overall total to 116,635.

That’s the highest single day total of new cases since early April.