Issues & Insights
Disinfecting the Tehran subway. Source: Wikimedia Commons

What Is Iran’s Coronavirus Reality?

As the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc in Iran, the regime’s incompetence, mismanagement, and corruption becomes more apparent. So far, authorities have been simply inept at controlling the spread of the virus. While the official figure puts the fatalities around 5,000, the Iranian opposition says more than 34,800 people have lost their lives in 294 cities nationwide.  

One of the major issues in dealing with this crisis is massive theft of drugs and medical equipment by the regime and its affiliated institutions, which has caused a major shortage of supplies. The regime and its foreign lobbies blame international sanctions for the shortage. But these sanctions have never targeted food and medicine.

By linking sanctions to medicine, the mullahs are presenting an ethical dilemma that is not grounded in reality. And with their paid lobbies and apologists, they are trying to exploit this situation to motivate the lifting of pressure on the regime.

But what is the reality?

Every year, a large portion of Iran’s budget is allocated to pharmaceutical drugs and imports of medical equipment. However, due to widespread state corruption, vast portions of the money are simply stolen or embezzled, as acknowledged by regime officials themselves.

For example, the current health minister said in July 2019: “About $1.3 billion dedicated to medical equipment has gone missing and no one knows exactly what happened to it.”

Similarly, after the regime ostensibly allocated 500 million euros in December 2018 to procurement of medical supplies, the state-run IRNA news agency said in February 2019 that over half had gone missing.

The regime has allocated lower dollar exchange rates for medical supplies, but importers use these funds to purchase non-urgent products making profits upwards of 250%. Parts of the budget are also used to purchase luxury items instead of medicine, yielding more astronomical profits for corrupt officials.

This corruption has been prevalent for years. For example, in 2012, then-Health Minister Marzieh Dastjerdi criticized the regime for announcing allocations that were never actually transferred to the ministry. Dastjerdi recalled in a TV interview in 2014: “We needed about $2.5 billion of foreign currency to import medicine and some medical essentials such as equipment to treat heart conditions, and other necessary items . . . but only $41 million in foreign currency was given to the Ministry.”

Another problem is that regime institutions hoard medicine. Some time ago, for example, the supply of drugs like IVIJ, Albumin, Factor 8 and Oxaplex, which are all blood-related medicines, became extremely low in the market. A state-run daily, Mashreq, reported that large volumes of these drugs were hoarded in medicine warehouses to manipulate prices.

Domestically, the Iranian medical industry is plagued by vast corruption, outright theft, price manipulation, hoarding, and misappropriation of foreign currency allocated to medical supplies. At the same time, the regime also sends free medicine to allies in the region as part of its expansionist policy.

For example, in September 2018, the regime’s Red Crescent sent some 200 tons of medicine to Iraq and supplied 40 medical centers. Ali Mar’ashi, a Red Crescent official, announced that the items included 400 kinds of drugs and 80 types of consumables.

According to a report just published by the dissident National Council of Resistance of Iran, all of this points to the conclusion that the medicine crisis in Iran is the direct result of the regime’s policies and rampant corruption. Still, the regime and its lobbies continue to whitewash these crimes and instead blame international sanctions.

Even an advisor to the regime’s health ministry confessed to the state-run ILNA news agency in July 2018 that the medical shortages “are not due to sanctions but rather to foreign currency allocations, storage (hoarding), or problems of distribution.” Similar comments have also been made by the head of Iran’s Scientific Association of Pharmaceutical Producers, among others.

If the regime did not have access to medicine, it would not send 200 tons of supplies to Iraq in a single shipment. The issue is that its priority is not the health of the Iranian people, whom it suppresses and kills in large numbers.

The regime’s priority is its own survival and profiteering. Consequently, it has no shortage of money to bolster the Syrian dictator, supply its nuclear program, and manufacture missiles.

Though ostensibly in charge of public health, the Minster of Health is on the record as saying that it would be inappropriate to spend $80,000 on patients with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) just so they could live a few years longer.

So are Iran’s shortages and medical crises due to sanctions or the actions of an inhumane regime that is effectively at war with its own people? The answer is clear, and it means that granting sanctions relief during this crisis would only help the Iranian regime, not its people.

Dr. Dashti is a specialist in infection and family medicine, practicing in Goteborg, Sweden.

Dr. Daneshgari is professor of surgery at Case Western Reserve University and lives in Akron, Ohio.

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