WASHINGTON — The Iranian government is using the COVID-19 epidemic to squelch rising dissent in that nation, keep the population enflamed against the United States, and get sanctions relief, a member of the Iranian Kurdish opposition said in an interview.
Salah Bayaziddi, the representative to the U.S. of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, said the fact that Tehran permitted thousands of city dwellers to fan out across Iran to celebrate spring vacations — and thus spreading COVID-19 — underscores the effort by the central government to weaken the opposition.
“The (Iranian) airline continues to fly to China and they continue to pick up Chinese all across the Middle East. Where they (COVINA-19 virus) are in the peak, they are allowing 10 million people to go on vacation across Iran. They want to spread this,” Bayaziddi said in a Thursday interview with Talk Media News.
The Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan is an opposition movement to the Iranian regime in Tehran. Critics of the group call it an armed group with communist origins.
Bayaziddi noted how Iranian officials expelled medical personnel from the international organization Doctors Without Borders, one of the groups assisting efforts to combat COVID-19 in the country and elsewhere, as an example of the strategy.
Iran, China, and Italy were the major hotspots for COVID-19 until the U.S. passed them on Thursday.
The team of nine doctors deployed to Iran by Doctors Without Borders — known by its French acronym, MSF — returned without even starting relief operations. The team was comprised of nine emergency and intensive care unit medical doctors and logisticians and was planning to set up a 50-bed field hospital in Isfahan, Iran’s second worst-affected area.
“While we offer our gratitude to MSF, with the national mobilization plan in place and all medical capacities of our armed forces used to fight the coronavirus, there is no need for hospital beds to be set up by foreign workers at the moment. This presence is canceled,” tweeted Alireza Vahabzadeh, an adviser to Iran’s health minister and spokesperson.
Prior to the MSF medical contingent arrival, Iran’s Ambassador to Paris, Bahram Qassemi, praised two shipments of medical supplies from the French city of Bordeaux to be delivered in Tehran “Strengthening international solidarity in an anxious world hit by the coronavirus is a must,” Qassemi wrote, according to news reports.
MSF has helped Iran for years, including in 1991 and 2003 after an earthquake and in 2019 to help with flooding.
Iranian officials said they expelled MSF “based on wisdom because their presence is a cover for nonhumanitarian activities,” Hossein Shariatmadari, a close aide to the supreme leader, said according to news reports.
Iranian previously rejected a U.S. offer for help for the same reasons.
(Friday news reports suggest that the Iranian government is reconsidering its decision and will permit MSF to provide assistance.)
Bayaziddi said the Iranian government is rejecting U.S. and other help in order to pressure European nations to convince Washington to lift economic sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
“This will force the international community to remove the sanctions,” he said. “If this virus would not have happened, people would be very angry at (the central government).”
On Thursday, however, the Treasury Department placed new sanctions against Iran with restrictions that target five Iran and Iraq-based enterprises and 15 individuals over their support to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and its Quds force, both designated by the US as terror groups. They are also accused of having transferred weapons to Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq, “such as Kata’ib Hizballah,” which was deemed by Washington to be the group behind a deadly rocket attack on an Iraqi base hosting foreign troops.
Besides smuggling weapons, those on the new sanctions list are also accused of money laundering, threatening Iraqi politicians and selling Iranian oil to the Assad regime in Damascus, according to a news release.