Fears Iran would serve as a launching pad for the coronavirus pandemic, potentially wreaking havoc on the Middle East, are coming true, according to U.S. officials, who point to a growing volume of evidence.
The State Department Monday accused Iran of transmitting the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, to multiple countries, saying that, in at least five instances, a country’s first case of the virus was “directly imported from Iran.”
“The Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters during a visit to Afghanistan.
“The regime continues to lie to the Iranian people and the world,” Pompeo added in a statement. “They put Iranians and people around the world at greater risk.”
Separately, other State Department officials voiced concern that the extent of the damage could be far worse, both for Iran and the region.
“The Iranian regime is hiding a significant amount of information about the coronavirus outbreak,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA. “This lack of transparency poses a significant health risk to the Iranian people, as well as to Iran’s neighbors.”
COVID blame game
Tehran, which has been hit harder than any other Middle Eastern country with more than 23,000 cases, has blamed the United States for its struggles.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Monday decried U.S. sanctions on Tehran as “mass punishment,” preventing Iran and the world from being able to effectively counter the pandemic.
A day earlier, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, took to Twitter to suggest the U.S. might even be responsible for the outbreak.
“I don't know how true it is. But when there's such an allegation, can a wise man trust you?” Khamenei asked. “You could be giving medicines that spread the virus or cause it to remain.”
The tweet drew a sharp rebuke Monday from the White House and the State Department, both of which accused Khamenei of lying.
Iran's airline flying amid outbreak
Specifically, the State Department has pointed to Tehran’s willful negligence, including its use of the state-backed airline, Mahan Air, which it says conducted at least 55 flights between Tehran and various destinations in China.
For weeks, such flights have worried officials and analysts, who note Mahan has continued to fly to Syria, and has permanent routes that connect Tehran with countries from Lebanon to Pakistan.
Equally worrisome for Western officials are the airline’s ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Quds Force, for which it has been sanctioned by the U.S, since 2011.
Officials say the IRGC has been on the frontlines, a public face for Iran’s response to the pandemic while, at the same time, continuing to act as an intermediary with Iranian proxy forces across the Middle East.
Reports in Iranian state media late last week indicated at least one pilot for Mahar Air died after contracting the coronavirus.
And other reports from the region suggest, Iranians operating in countries like Syria have also fallen victim to the virus.
COVID-19 threat to Syria
Last week, the local Syrian news outlet Deir Ezzor 24 quoted sources as saying at least two Iranian militia members in the city of Al-Mayadin had been quarantined after being diagnosed with the coronavirus.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday said the number of Iranians diagnosed with the coronavirus in Al-Mayadin had risen to at least 11, with more cases possible.
But officials and analysts say the IRGC and Iranian-backed militias are engaged in a concerted campaign to show they are fighting back against the virus and not falling victim to it.
“Hashd al-Sha'abi [Iranian-backed militias in Iraq] did a press photo series showing the umbrella group has response teams,” Phillip Smyth, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told VOA. “Other individuals, mainly leaders, have tried to show off they're not infected by posting videos and photos of themselves being tested.”
Despite such public relations campaigns, Israeli officials have said they see indications that some of Iran’s malign activities have decreased of late.
Only some former Israeli military intelligence officials doubt Iran will back off for long.
“That is not going to happen," said former Israeli National Security Adviser, retired Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror.
“They [will] continue when they see opportunities and when they believe that it might help them,” he said. “It is easier in Iraq when they have Shiite militias, which they can use. It will be more complicated in Lebanon, which is in a broken state."
That has raised concerns that IRGC operatives will continue to spread the coronavirus, possibly even to high-risk populations in the region, including refugees and displaced persons.
“The thing that I'm most concerned about from an early stage was how this could spread in refugee camps that Iranians come in contact with, whether that's in Syria or Iraq or elsewhere,” said Colin Clarke, a senior fellow at The Soufan Center, a global security research group. “You're talking about highly vulnerable populations with little to no resources.”
Humanitarian groups, like the Norwegian Refugee Council, have warned of “carnage” if and when the coronavirus takes hold in Syria and other areas deprived of adequate health care.