June 29, 2020 | Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

Iran’s COVID-19 Disinformation Campaign

June 29, 2020 | Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

Iran’s COVID-19 Disinformation Campaign

Excerpt

In the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran quickly became the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. According to Iranian authorities, the virus has infected over 207,000 Iranians and killed more than 9,700 as of June 22, 2020.1 The actual numbers are likely much higher, as Tehran has underreported the extent of the outbreak.2 While governments throughout the world have struggled to address the health crisis, the clerical regime in Iran made a bad situation worse by initially concealing the virus from its population, lying about its gravity and consequences, and holding large-scale public events that, in fact, spread the malady throughout the country and region.

The regime brought massive crowds to the streets for the 41st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution on February 11, 2020, and for parliamentary elections on February 21, 2020. Iranian officials reportedly knew of the threat imposed by the virus by December 2019,3 but it took them until February 19, two days before the election, to acknowledge the country’s first two COVID-19 deaths.4 With the pandemic spreading and Iranians suffering, Tehran launched a global disinformation campaign directed at both domestic and international audiences to deflect attention from its own malpractice. Tehran blamed the United States for creating the virus and for imposing sanctions that allegedly undermined Iran’s public health response. The campaign’s goals were to intensify disagreements between the United States and its allies and pressure Washington to suspend its sanctions.

The clerical regime’s reliance on disinformation is rooted in its ideology. The Islamic Republic is a revolutionary theocracy based on radicalized Shiism. Its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sees himself as God’s representative on Earth. Accordingly, he has a mission. Like other revolutionary states, the Islamic Republic has sought to export its creed to the broader Muslim world and confront what are depicted as satanic forces—the United States, Israel, and Western culture in general—that threaten Islam. Propagating these ‘big lies’ requires a persistent bending of reality to fit this narrative.

Mark Dubowitz is chief executive of the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior Iran and financial economics advisor. Follow Mark and Saeed on Twitter @mdubowitz and @SGhasseminejad

  1. “World Map,” Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, accessed May 20, 2020.
  2. “Mossad chief said to allege Iran, some Arab states lying about their virus stats,” Times of Israel, April 24, 2020.
  3. “Former Iran Health Minister Says He Warned Officials Last Year On Coronavirus Threat,” Radio Farda, March 23, 2020.
  4. Dexter Filkins, “The Twilight of the Iranian Revolution,” New Yorker, May 18, 2020.
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Issues:

COVID-19 Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Politics and Economy Iran Sanctions Sanctions and Illicit Finance