DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Iran's supreme leader refused U.S. assistance Sunday to fight the new coronavirus, citing an unfounded conspiracy theory claiming the virus could be man-made by America.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments come as Iran faces crushing U.S. sanctions blocking the country from selling its crude oil and accessing international financial markets.
But while Iranian civilian officials in recent days have increasingly criticized those sanctions, 80-year-old Khamenei instead chose to traffic in the same conspiracy theory increasingly used by Chinese officials about the new virus to deflect blame for the pandemic.
"I do not know how real this accusation is but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication?" Khamenei said. "Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more."
He also alleged without offering any evidence that the virus "is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means."
"You might send people as doctors and therapists, maybe they would want to come here and see the effect of the poison they have produced in person," he said.
There is no scientific proof offered anywhere in the world to support Khamenei's claims.
However, his comments come after Chinese government spokesman Lijian Zhao tweeted earlier this month that it "might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe(s) us an explanation!"
Lijian likewise offered no evidence to support his claim, which saw the U.S. State Department summon China's ambassador to complain. A Chinese state newspaper tweeted Sunday another allegation trying to link the virus to Italy, similarly hard-hit by the outbreak.
Wuhan is the Chinese city where the first cases of the disease were detected in December.
In recent days, the Trump administration has increasingly referred to the virus as the "Chinese" or "Wuhan" virus, while the World Health Organization used the term COVID-19 to describe the illness the virus causes. Even a U.S. senator from Arkansas has trafficked in the unfounded conspiracy theory it was a man-made Chinese bioweapon. Relations with China and the U.S. have been tense under President Donald Trump amid a trade war between the nations.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
Scientists have not yet determined exactly how the new coronavirus first infected people. Evidence suggests it originated in bats, which infected another animal that spread it to people at a market in Wuhan. The now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market advertised dozens of species such as giant salamanders, baby crocodiles and raccoon dogs that were often referred to as wildlife, even when they were farmed.
An article published last week in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Medicine dismissed the idea the virus was man-made. Its authors said it was "improbable" that the virus "emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus."
Khamenei made the comments in a speech in Tehran broadcast live Sunday across Iran marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and the Islamic commemoration known as Isra and Miraj. He had called off his usual speech at Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad over the virus outbreak.
His comments come as Iran has over 21,600 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus amid 1,685 reported deaths, according to government figures released Sunday. Experts still fear Iran may be underreporting its cases.
Iran is one of the hardest-hit countries in the world by the new virus, sweeping across leaders in both its civilian government and Shiite theocracy. Across the Mideast, Iran represents eight of 10 cases of the virus and those leaving the Islamic Republic have carried the virus to other countries.
Iranian officials have criticized U.S. offers of aid during the virus crisis as being disingenuous. They have accused the Trump administration of wanting to capitalize on its "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran since withdrawing from the nuclear deal in May 2018. However, the U.S. has directly offered the Islamic Republic aid in the past despite decades of enmity, like former President George W. Bush did during the devastating Bam earthquake of 2003.
The U.S. sanctions have made it more difficult for Iran to access the global market. International firms remain leery of deals with Tehran, even those for humanitarian purposes. The U.S. and Switzerland announced a trade mechanism in late February the two nations say "presents a voluntary option for facilitating payment for exports of agricultural commodities, food, medicine, and medical devices to Iran."
All this comes after months of tensions that ended with Iran saying it would no longer follow any limits of the nuclear deal. A U.S. drone strike in January killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani while Tehran retaliated with a ballistic missile attack targeting American forces in Iraq.
Reassigning blame could be helpful to Iran's government, which faced widespread public anger after denying for days it shot down a Ukrainian jetliner, killing 176 people. Widespread economic problems as well has seen mass demonstrations in recent years that saw hundreds reportedly killed.
Iranian hard-liners have supported conspiracy theories in the past when it suited their interests.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, some publicly doubted al-Qaida's role and state TV promoting the unfounded conspiracy theory that the Americans blew up the building themselves.
Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad similarly raised doubt about the Sept. 11 attack, calling it a "big lie," while also describing the Holocaust as a "myth."
Meanwhile on Sunday, Iran imposed a two-week closure on major shopping malls and centers across the country to prevent spreading the virus. Pharmacies, supermarkets, groceries and bakeries will remain open. Doctors Without Borders also plans to open a 50-bed inflatable treatment unit in the Iranian city of Isfahan.