Skip to main content

Fast-spreading coronavirus pushes Iran closer to lockdown

Despite conflicting reports, Iran's death toll from the coronavirus epidemic is rising a few weeks ahead of the country’s New Year holidays.
Iranian women wear protective masks to prevent contracting coronavirus, as they walk in the street in Tehran, Iran February 25, 2020. WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Nazanin Tabatabaee via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC2Q7F9UZ1JB

Iran is closer to an effective shutdown amid a worsening coronavirus epidemic that was first reported last Wednesday in the city of Qom, the center of its powerful clergy and home to much-visited holy shrines. As of Feb. 26, the official death toll from the country’s Health Ministry stood at 19, a figure likely to jump as suspected cases approach the 1,000 mark in at least 11 affected provinces. 

The figures differ widely in various reports. Ahmad Ami-Abadi, one of the lawmakers representing Qom in Iran's parliament, claimed that the toll was well above 50, pressing the Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi to resign. Harirchi has sparked fury by rejecting demands for imposing a full quarantine on Qom, describing such measures as outdated World War I practices. The health official himself has now tested positive, a sign that others could already be in the same boat following back-to-back meetings and joint pressers.

“We will definitely kill the disease in the weeks to come,” Harirchi vowed with a raised fist in a viral video after officially joining the list of confirmed cases. “This virus does not differentiate between authorities and ordinary people, [but] we do possess the remedy.”

Hours later, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a Reformist lawmaker and a vocal civil rights defender, came out with a similar message about his positive test. On Twitter, he also urged Iran’s judiciary leader Ibrahim Raeesi to order the temporary release of political detainees to protect them from a possible outbreak inside the prisons.

Earlier, the mayor of Tehran’s district 13 was among the first to be diagnosed. According to the latest reports, the Qom-based top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Shobeiri Zanjani has been quarantined after a member of his close circle, another cleric, died from the disease.

The epidemic has already led to a shortage of masks and disinfectants in pharmacies. Judiciary officials have warned of severe punishment for hoarders after police found and raided several warehouses that have been stockpiling the materials.

At newsstands, anger is being openly vented at the government’s “mishandling” of yet another crisis. “The virus of irresponsibility is worse than coronavirus,” shouted Reformist newspaper Aftab-e-Yazd. Arman, another pro-Reform daily, questioned the government’s refusal to quarantine Qom, a measure that might have kept the epidemic from spiraling out of control.

Officials are now considering whether a current nationwide closure of schools ought to be stretched beyond the Persian New Year holidays. The measure could keep children indoors until the second week of April. Meanwhile, fears for the elderly have forced the postponement of the annual summit of the Assembly of Experts, a body of Iran’s most senior clerics in charge of supervising the country’s supreme leader.

Nonetheless, in a speech addressing the inauguration ceremony of a highway outside Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani appeared optimistic. “We managed to overcome influenza B,” Rouhani proudly declared. “Coronavirus is not tougher,” he added.

In an effort to soothe public worries, Iran’s Health Ministry has also announced that at least two dozen patients are recovering. On social media, where rumors can be hard to distinguish from reliable reports amid an incessant flow of mixed information, one video showed a group of excited physicians surrounding an infected doctor they said was making significant progress toward recovery.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

The Middle East in your inbox Insights in your inbox.

Deepen your knowledge of the Middle East

Trend Reports

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (4th R) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on February 22, 2019. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

From roads to routers: The future of China-Middle East connectivity

A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, on March 29, 2018. - On March 27, Saudi announced a deal with Japan's SoftBank to build the world's biggest solar plant. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Regulations on Middle East renewable energy industry starting to take shape

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial