Iranian Officials Stole More Than $1 Billion in Humanitarian Coronavirus Funds, Pompeo Says

Tehran uses pandemic to spread anti-U.S. propaganda

Mike Pompeo
Mike Pompeo / Getty Images
March 23, 2020

Iranian regime officials stole more than $1 billion in humanitarian funds meant to be used to help the country's people fight the spread of coronavirus, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

European countries intended for more than $1 billion cash for medical supplies to go to the Iranian people, who have been ravaged by the virus. But American officials say regime leaders instead pocketed the money and are now using it to protect themselves from the virus as it spreads throughout the population. This includes hoarding medical supplies that were meant to aid Iranian citizens.

Multiple regional reports have showed that before and since the virus began spreading, Iranian leaders stole funds purposed directly to support the ailing Iranian people.

Iran has been among the hardest hit by the virus, and its government's response has drawn international criticism, especially from the Trump administration. Secretary of State Pompeo accused Iran of mass corruption as the regime continues to spread propaganda, including accusations that the United States manufactured the coronavirus and is using its tough global sanctions campaign to prevent Iran from accessing medicine and humanitarian aid.

Pompeo on Monday issued a series of new allegations about Tehran's mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak. "Supreme leader [Ali] Khamenei's fabrications regarding the Wuhan virus are dangerous and they put Iranians and people around the world at greater risk," Pompeo said. "Facts matter."

"Regime officials stole over a billion euros intended for medical supplies," Pompeo said in one of the first public accountings of Iran's alleged misuse of humanitarian funds that were meant to be used in cases such as the coronavirus outbreak. That sum amounts to well over one billion in American currency. Pompeo also said Iranian officials "continue to hoard desperately needed masks, gloves, and other medical equipment for sale on the black market."

The State Department made clear in facts sheets distributed to reporters that the billions in humanitarian funds Iran stole could have been used to fight the coronavirus in Iran. This includes misusing millions of dollars in late 2019 to purchase tobacco instead of medical supplies.

Iranian officials have disseminated falsehoods about the nature of U.S. sanctions, which do not include restrictions on humanitarian assistance. These talking points have been picked up by Tehran's American allies, including members of the Obama administration's so-called echo chamber, as part of an effort to see sanctions on Iran lifted.

Pompeo said part of the reason Iran has become a hotspot for the coronavirus is that the regime refuses to stop flights between Tehran and China. Iran's Mahan Air—which is designated as a terrorist entity by the United States for its routine shipments of weapons and fighters across the Middle East—ran at least 55 flights between Tehran and China after most countries had enacted a travel ban.

International health authorities say at least five countries experienced their first cases of coronavirus as a direct result of contact with Iran. 

It has also become clear in recent days that Iran failed to heed warnings from its own health officials about how volatile and deadly the virus could be. In a bid to hide this information from the world, Iran lied about the number of infections and deaths from the virus, the United States alleges.

Iran officially claims there have been 23,049 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 1,812 deaths in the country as of Monday. However, the true numbers are likely far higher, though they are difficult to estimate due to Iran's efforts to hide information from international health groups.

"The regime continues to lie to the Iranian people and the world about the number of cases and deaths, which are unfortunately far higher than the regime admits," Pompeo said.

The U.S. government has continued to offer assistance to Iran but has been repeatedly turned down. Iran, in turn, has used the global pandemic as an opportunity to spread anti-U.S. sentiment.

"Khamenei rejected this offer because he works tirelessly to concoct conspiracy theories and prioritizes ideology over the Iranian people," Pompeo said.

U.S. sanctions have not and still do not target humanitarian channels meant to allow Iran to access medicine, food, equipment, and other life-saving items. In fact, Iranian health companies "have been able to import testing kits without obstacle from U.S. sanctions since January," according to the secretary of state.

Pompeo's statements appear to be in direct response to Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, who accused the United States of using sanctions as a weapon to ensure the virus's spread across Iran.

"Iranian people appreciate the growing global campaign of government & civil society leaders calling for lifting of illegal US sanctions," Zarif tweeted on Monday.

"US sanctions has created serious problem for sending medical equipment and supplies to Iran to confront coronavirus," Iran's state-controlled Mehr News Agency claimed on Monday.

Prominent U.S. allies of the Iranian regime, who are now using the coronavirus outbreak to push against the Trump administration's tough economic sanctions campaign, have disseminated these talking points to an American audience.

Iranian leader Ali Khamenei has also spread inflammatory propaganda claiming the United States created the virus and is using it to poison Iranian citizens. The ayatollah said that any U.S. medicine given to Iran could be used to "further spread the disease."

"You cannot be trusted," Khamenei said of the United States in a wide-ranging speech late last week. "If you send some doctor or healer, he might want to come here to check on the effects of the poison you created."

Update 7:44 p.m.: This report has been updated to provide additional clarifying information about the humanitarian funds the United States accuses Iranian officials of stealing. The State Department provided additional information about its claims Monday evening, after this initial report was published.