Iran's Khamanei refuses U.S. help to fight coronavirus, citing conspiracy theory
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments come as Iran faces crushing U.S. sanctions blocking the country from selling its crude oil and accessing international financial markets.
But while Iranian civilian officials in recent days have increasingly criticised those sanctions, 80-year-old Khamenei instead chose to traffic in the same conspiracy theory increasingly used by Chinese officials about the new virus to deflect blame for the pandemic.
“I do not know how real this accusation is but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication?" Khamenei said. "Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more.”
He also alleged without offering any evidence that the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means.”
Coronavirus in the Middle East: Lock down or play down?
Countries such as Kuwait and Israel have instituted virtual lockdowns in the face of COVID-19, while religious gatherings have been limited at a time of year ripe with ritual. Others have been slower to act. By Tom Allinson
Iran bearing the brunt: with a high number of deaths and cases, Iran has been a regional epicentre of the outbreak. Several top officials have been infected and there are concerns the number of cases are higher than reported. The government has cancelled Friday prayers but health workers have complained they are under-equipped. Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding
Strict measures in Saudi Arabia: Saudi authorities banned international religious pilgrims early on, leaving the Grand Mosque's Kaaba in Mecca virtually empty. Other measures have involved sanitizing streets and mosques, closing schools and universities, an extensive travel ban and fines of up to 500,000 riyals (€120,000/$133,000) for people hiding health details. It has also locked down the Shia-minority area of Qatif
Egypt restricts travel: in Cairo, hundreds of Egyptians tried to get certificates showing they have a clean bill of health after Saudi Arabia announced new travel regulations. Although Egypt has only detected a low number of cases, more than 100 tourists returning from the country tested positive for the virus. Officials have limited sermons to 15 minutes and cancelled large public gatherings
Israel and West Bank cut off from the world: gatherings of less than 100 are still allowed, leaving visits to the Wailing Wall open. But Israeli authorities have virtually halted air traffic in and out of its territory and tourists are required to self-quarantine. The city of Bethlehem has declared a state of emergency, emptying streets usually teeming ahead of Easter. Israeli researchers have said they are close to finding a COVID-19 cure
Virtual lockdown in Kuwait: as Kuwaitis kept their distance at this makeshift testing centre, the country entered a virtual lockdown, with the entire workforce given a two-week holiday from March 12. All commercial flights have been suspended from Friday on, schools have been closed and gatherings at restaurants, malls and commercial centres have been banned
In Iraq coronavirus fails to dampen protests: Iraq's protest movement has set up its own makeshift disinfection stations to counter the spread of COVID-19. Although Iraq is highly prone to the outbreak due to its proximity and close relations with Iran, protesters have been defiant, saying the government is the virus. Elsewhere authorities have closed major public spaces and religious institutions have cancelled gatherings
“You might send people as doctors and therapists, maybe they would want to come here and see the effect of the poison they have produced in person," he said.
There is no scientific proof offered anywhere in the world to support Khamenei's comments.
However, his comments come after Chinese government spokesman Lijian Zhao tweeted earlier this month that it “might be U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! U.S. owe(s) us an explanation!”
Lijian likewise offered no evidence to support his claim, which saw the U.S. State Department summon China's ambassador to complain.
Wuhan is the Chinese city where the first cases of the disease were detected in December. In recent days, the Trump administration has increasingly referred to the virus as the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus, while the World Health Organisation used the term COVID-19 to describe the illness the virus causes. Even a U.S. senator from Arkansas has trafficked in the unfounded conspiracy theory it was a man-made Chinese bio-weapon.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
Scientists have not yet determined exactly how the new coronavirus first infected people. Evidence suggests it originated in bats, which infected another animal that spread it to people at a market in Wuhan. The now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market advertised dozens of species such as giant salamanders, baby crocodiles and raccoon dogs that were often referred to as wildlife, even when they were farmed.
An article published last week in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Medicine similarly said it was “improbable” that the virus “emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus.”
Khamenei made the comments in a speech in Tehran broadcast live on Sunday across Iran marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year. He had called off his usual speech at Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad over the virus outbreak.
His comments come as Iran has over 21,600 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus amid 1,685 reported deaths, according to government figures released Sunday.
Iran is one of thecountries in the world hardest-hit by the new virus. Across the Middle East, Iran represents eight of 10 cases of the virus and those leaving the Islamic Republic have carried the virus to other countries.
Iranian officials have criticised U.S. offers of aid during the virus crisis as being disingenuous. They have accused the Trump administration of wanting to capitalise on its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran since withdrawing from the nuclear deal in May 2018. However, the U.S. has directly offered the Islamic Republic aid in the past despite decades of enmity, like during the devastating Bam earthquake of 2003.
Reassigning blame could be helpful to Iran's government, which faced widespread public anger after denying for days it shot down a Ukrainian jetliner, killing 176 people. Widespread economic problems as well has seen mass demonstrations in recent years that saw hundreds reportedly killed.
Iranian hard-liners have supported conspiracy theories in the past when it suited their interests. Following the September 11 attacks, some publicly doubted al-Qaida's role and state TV promoting the unfounded conspiracy theory that the Americans blew up the building themselves.
Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad similarly raised doubt about the September 11 attack, calling it a “big lie", while also describing the Holocaust as a “myth”.
Meanwhile on Sunday, Iran imposed a two-week closure on major shopping malls and centres across the country to prevent spreading the virus. Pharmacies, supermarkets, groceries and bakeries will remain open.
In Saudi Arabia, the kingdom said its armed forces are now taking part in combatting the virus, setting up mobile hospitals in various cities.
And, in Kuwait, authorities have instituted a nightly curfew from 5 p.m. to 4 a.m., warning violators face up to three years in prison and fines of $32,000 if arrested and convicted. (AP)