Iran rejects coronavirus aid amid conspiracy theories and sanctions

Iran has been hard hit with a death toll of at least 1,934.

March 24, 2020, 6:33 PM

Iran rejected coronavirus aid provided by Doctors Without Borders, an international medical humanitarian organization, which had sent a team of medical staff and a field hospital to Iran.

"Since the national mobilization for confronting corona is ongoing, and the medical capabilities of Iranian Armed Forces are entirely at its service, Iran does not need hospitals established by foreigners and such presence is irrelevant," an adviser to Iran’s health minister, Alireza Vahhabzadeh, tweeted on Monday.

The Islamic Republic is the hardest hit country in the region with a death toll of at least 1,934 and 24,811 officially confirmed infection cases, the spokesman of the health ministry, Kianoush Jahanpour said on Tuesday, Iranian Students’ News Agency reported.

Iranian fire department staffs disinfect the public places against coronavirus at night using machinery and mobile pumps, March 16, 2020, in Tehran, Iran.
Sobhan Farajvan/Middle East Images via Redux Pictures

On Sunday, the official website of the Doctors without Borders /Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) stated that a "team of nine emergency and intensive care unit (ICU) doctors" along with logisticians to run the unit were sent to Isfahan, the second worst-affected province of the country after the capital city of Tehran.

Later, MSF officials said on Tuesday that the minister’s adviser's tweet caught them by surprise.

“We are deeply surprised to learn that the approval for the deployment of our treatment unit has been revoked,” said the manager of MSF’s emergency programs, Michel Olivier Lacharité, who is based in Paris. “The need for this intervention, and the authorizations needed to start it, were discussed and agreed with relevant Iranian authorities during the past weeks."

The decision has caused confusion about the real need of the Islamic Republic for medical aid in its fight against the coronavirus.

Sadegh Zibakalam, an Iranian political expert, described the move as an example of prioritizing "ideology over people’s health."

"Expelling Doctors Without Borders who had come to Iran to fight corona is a representation of politicization and prioritizing ideological considerations over everything else including people’s lives and health," he tweeted on Tuesday.

However, those who are in favor of the decision believe that the MSF help package was too small to cover needs of the country, saying it was meant to cover up the bigger damages the U.S. sanctions have caused for Iran’s health system.

Since May 2018, Washington reinstated several economic and trade sanctions on Tehran after President Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal. While medication and food are exempted from sanctions, transaction restrictions have affected Iran’s access to medical supplies, especially in the fight against the coronavirus.

"They think they are dealing with fools that they want to compensate suffocating people by sanctions on their economy, export and import, money transaction and economy merely by ten doctors and 1,000 masks," Pooria Astaraky, a supporter of the system, tweeted.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech in the capital Tehran, March 22, 2020.
Khamenei/AFP via Getty Images

Some critical of putting MSF aid on hold believe that rejecting this help sends the wrong signal to the international bodies, making them think the country is not in lack of supplies as its officials state.

"When you reject foreign aid with any excuse, be it its small quantity or our lack of need, [that] makes your voice unheard [about sanctions]," wrote Bahman Daroshafai on his Twitter account.

Stopping MSF team is also widely advocated by those who follow a line of conspiracy theory considering foreign medical staff as potential spies.

"According to some monitoring results, these people are on mission for the U.S. to report about the coronavirus in Iran and hand it to the United States," Amin Nikdel, a hardliner advocate of the system, described the MSF mission in his tweet.

Nikdel’s claim refers to the speech of Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei on Sunday, when he accused the U.S. of creating the novel coronavirus.

"When there's such an allegation, can a wise man trust you," Ayatollah Khamenei said.

"You could be giving medicines that spread the virus or cause it to remain. Experience shows you can’t be trusted and you do such things," he added.

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