Exclusive: Iran Imprisoning Coronavirus Whistleblowers, State Department Says

Regime leaders lying about coronavirus statistics, according to Foggy Bottom

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walks past a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani walks past a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei / Getty Images
March 25, 2020

Tehran is lying to the international community about the number of citizens infected and killed by coronavirus and imprisoning dissenters for speaking out, the U.S. State Department tells the Washington Free Beacon.

"The regime has imprisoned dozens of Iranians for sharing statistics and forced hospital officials across Iran to falsify the number of cases and deaths," said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

The Iranian regime claims the numbers of those infected and dead stand at 24,811 and 1,934, respectively. But the United States and other observers say there are far more casualties. In a bid to keep the actual infection rate and death toll secret, Iranian officials have resorted to violence and subterfuge. Their efforts include enlisting U.S. allies in a campaign to weaken the Trump administration's tough economic sanctions on the country, a move that could provide the regime with billions in cash.

"We can be sure that the same regime that lied about shooting down a passenger jet and that still hasn't revealed the number of protesters killed last November is not being transparent with the number of cases and deaths from coronavirus today," Ortagus said, referring to Iran's downing of a commercial airliner in January that killed everyone on board.

Iran, through its state-controlled press organs, claims 8,913 citizens have recovered from the coronavirus as of Tuesday evening. Several senior Iranian leaders have already died from the illness, while others have been forced to admit they are infected. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exiled opposition group that seeks to depose the hardline government, alleges that nearly 6,000 Iranians have died from coronavirus as of last week. The group said its data were collected by dissidents operating inside the country.

As Iranian officials mislead the international media about the scope of the situation in their country, they also have seized on the virus as an opportunity to push for full-scale sanctions relief.

The European Union is already poised to send Iran more than 20 million euros in relief funds. Tehran also has petitioned the International Monetary Fund to provide at least $5 billion in emergency funds—a lifeline that sources say European allies will support.

This money has emerged as a flashpoint within the Trump administration and among its allies on Capitol Hill. Critics in the administration are concerned the cash will not be used for medical purposes, but to fund Tehran's terrorist proxies across the Middle East. The Iranian regime already stands accused of stealing more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo challenged Iranian leaders on Monday in a blunt statement outlining the regime's lies. Billing his statement as a fact check on the regime, Pompeo accused Iranian officials of pocketing more than a billion dollars in humanitarian funds that should have been used to combat the coronavirus.

"Regime officials stole over a billion euros intended for medical supplies," Pompeo said.

The secretary of state also accused Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei of spreading conspiracy theories alleging the United States is responsible for creating the virus and infecting the world.

Iran's pleas for sanctions relief have received attention in the U.S. media.

Former officials from the Obama administration's so-called echo chamber—a network of pro-Iran activists, media figures, and government officials who coordinated to ink the landmark nuclear deal with Tehran—have disseminated falsehoods about the nature of U.S. sanctions, which do not limit humanitarian aid to the country.

While Tehran has rebuffed repeated Trump administration overtures to aid its coronavirus response, it has falsely claimed that American sanctions are blocking the delivery of medical supplies.

Iran "rejected this offer because [Khamenei] works tirelessly to concoct conspiracy theories and prioritizes ideology over the Iranian people," Pompeo said earlier in the week.

Richard Goldberg, who served as a senior Iran adviser on Trump's National Security Council, told the Free Beacon that Tehran is seeking to dupe Europe into giving it cash assets.

"What's really happening is that everything America said about the Islamic Republic is proving true," said Goldberg, who is now a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "Rather than invest in their own people, the mullahs spend money on terrorist proxies outside Iran's borders, expensive missile tests, and costly nuclear expansions. Now they have to choose whether to keep funding their illicit activities or spend money on the people—and they'd rather get an international bailout or sanctions relief so they won't have to choose."