(CNSNews.com) – Hitting back at the Iranian regime’s attempts to blame the United States for the novel coronavirus, the State Department on Monday accused Tehran of lying to its people about the outbreak, covering up its scale, and facilitating the spread of the disease to other countries.
The department also accused regime officials of stealing funds intended for medical supplies, and of hoarding and selling on the black market urgently needed medical equipment, including masks and gloves.
At the weekend supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran has rejected U.S. offers of assistance to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic because the U.S. could not be trusted, may itself have created the virus, and may use any envisaged aid mission as a cover to worsen the outbreak inside Iran.
U.S. offers of help – via the Swiss government, which has served as the U.S. protecting power in Iran since U.S.-Iran diplomatic ties were severed in 1979 – were first made almost a month ago, and have been reiterated periodically since.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Monday Khamenei has rejected the help “because he works tirelessly to concoct conspiracy theories and prioritizes ideology over the Iranian people.”
He highlighted several “facts” which he said the regime would like to keep hidden from the world.
The regime’s Mahan Air, Pompeo said, had operated at least 55 flights between Iran and China during February, “further infecting the Iranian people.”
Iranian officials announced on January 31 that air travel to China was being suspended because of the outbreak there. But Mahan – an airline designated by the U.S. government for transporting weaponry and military personnel to conflict zones on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – continued flying “humanitarian” missions through February.
Iran reported its first two COVID-19 cases, and first two deaths, on February 19 (the first death was believed actually to have occurred nine days earlier). As of March 22 the official figures were 21,638 cases and 1,685 deaths, and Pompeo said the real figures were “far higher than the regime admits.”
Pompeo also recalled that “at least five foreign countries’ first cases of coronavirus were directly imported from Iran, putting millions more lives at risk.”
In fact more than ten countries’ first cases, in the second half of February and early March, were linked to Iran.
They included countries in the region – Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Lebanon, UAE, and Pakistan – as well as Canada, New Zealand, and the United States – where the first confirmed case in New York, reported on March 1, involved a woman who recently returned from visiting Iran.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on March 12, U.S. Central Command commander Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said CENTCOM was closely watching the coronavirus situation in Iran “because of the permeability and porousness of the borders – it sits, Iran sits in the middle of the theater so their ability to pass that infection to other states is very worrisome.”
In response to a question about the scale of the outbreak in Iran, McKenzie confirmed that “there is a lot of travel between Iran and China.”
Khamenei’s hedge fund
Pompeo on Monday also accused regime officials of stealing money intended for health services.
“Since 2012, Iran has spent over $16 billion on terror abroad, and used sanctions relief from the JCPOA [the 2015 nuclear deal] to fill up its proxies’ coffers,” he said, in reference to entities including Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and the Assad regime in Syria.
“Regime officials stole over a billion euros intended for medical supplies, and continue to hoard desperately needed masks, gloves, and other medical equipment for sale on the black market.”
A State Department document added a few more “facts” about the regime’s handling of the outbreak.
“The regime encouraged large public gatherings to try to bolster its legitimacy, with no regard for the health risk to Iranian citizens,” it said, in reference to Iran’s legislative election on February 21.
The regime customarily makes much of election turnout, portraying it as a strong show of support. The Feb. 21 election turnout was the lowest since 1979, and Khamenei said afterwards “enemies” had tried to use the coronavirus outbreak as a “pretext” to discourage people from going to the polls.
The State Department fact sheet took aim at Khamenei’s accumulated wealth.
“If regime officials are looking for funds to combat the outbreak, they can start by returning money they stole from the Iranian people,” it said. “Supreme Leader Khamenei runs a hedge fund worth tens of billions of dollars, much of which was ‘earned’ by confiscating resources from the Iranian people.”
On Twitter, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus made the same point:
“Conspiracy theories about the Wuhan Virus peddled by [Khamenei] are harmful, irresponsible, and 100% false. If the so-called Supreme Leader were a true leader, he’d return the billions in his tax-free hedge fund back to the Iranian people to deal with the virus outbreak.”
The department in its fact sheet also rejected Tehran’s claims that U.S. sanctions, reinstated after President Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, were preventing outbreak assistance to reaching Iran.
“The United States maintains broad authorizations that allow for the sale of food, agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices by U.S. persons or from the United States to Iran,” it said. “The media should know better than to believe and propagate Chinese and Russian propaganda that misleads the public into believing U.S. sanctions are to blame.”
The “humanitarian exception” in U.S. Iran sanctions long predated the COVID-19 outbreak. It applies to the sale of agricultural commodities, food, medicine, or medical devices from third countries to Iran.