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The Chicagoan Fact-Checking Iran’s COVID-19 Death Toll

According to the government’s own numbers, Iran is one of the hardest-hit countries in the world. But Ahmad Obali thinks the truth is much worse.

Obali in the Günaz TV studio   Photo: Clayton Hauck

Last weekend, Al Jazeera reported that the total number of COVID-19 cases in Iran had surpassed 50,000, according to the country’s own figures. Three thousand had died — a pace of six deaths every hour.

Those numbers make Iran one of the hardest-hit countries in the world. The New York Times, among others, has argued that the U.S. government should ease sanctions against Iran to help combat the crisis.

Despite all that, Ahmad Obali is sure those numbers are wrong. As terrible as they are, he believes that the truth is far, far worse.

“Instead of managing the cases, they’re managing the numbers,” says Obali, an émigré from Iran’s Azeri-speaking region who now lives in Wilmette.

He knows this because he doesn’t rely on numbers reported by the government, but on his own team of stringers on the ground in Iran. They help him collect information for his news broadcasts for Günaz TV, an independent Azeri-language satellite station he runs.

Obali fled Iran in the early 1980s after the government began discriminating, sometimes violently, against ethnic minorities like his fellow Azeris, at least 15 million of whom live south of the Azerbaijani border in Iran. He started up the station in 2004 to inform and connect with the people he left behind. Today, he estimates his audience at 30 million viewers.

Günaz TV runs 24 hours a day, broadcasting movies, music, and talk shows. But its bedrock is Obali’s news program. As Bryan Smith wrote in his 2016 Chicago profile of Obali, “To the Azeris of Iran, Obali is Anderson Cooper. He is Walter Cronkite. His face and voice are as recognizable as those who run the country. To the Iranian government, he’s a propagandist, a subversive, a traitor.”

Since the COVID-19 crisis began and Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a shelter in place order for Illinois, Obali and his family have moved from their home to the Günaz TV studio in a nondescript split-level house near the Wisconsin border. He’s also expanded his news broadcast from 45 minutes three times a week to six hours daily.

There’s been a lot to report.

Obali believes the novel coronavirus arrived in Iran as early as December, shortly after it appeared in Wuhan, China. It was carried by Chinese workers building a high-speed railway between the Iranian cities of Mashhad and Qom, and by Iranian businessmen who saw no reason to curtail their travel to China. Mahan Air, an Iranian airline with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, didn’t just continue flying to China, but increased its number of flights, picking up passengers who had been stranded by other airlines.

By mid-January, Iranian doctors and hospital administrators were aware of the disease. They wrote a warning to the Department of Health and Human Services, but the government, says Obali, suppressed them.

Meanwhile, Iranian leaders minimized the danger posed by the coronavirus, and life in Iran went on as usual. Businesses stayed open, including the country’s crowded semi-enclosed bazaars, so that people could shop for Nowruz, the Persian new year that began on March 21. Pilgrims continued to travel to shrines in the holy cities of Mashhad and Qom for blessings that would cure them of various illnesses, including COVID-19. Obali posted video on Twitter from as late as March 16 showing crowds surging around the entrance to the Imam Reza shrine, one of the holiest sites of Shia Islam. (Obali has also posted the names and photos of mullahs who have died from the virus. If they are powerful enough to stop it, he argues, why didn’t they save themselves?)

“The government kept saying, we’re not going to close anything, not ever going to quarantine any person, any city, anywhere,” Obali says. “The president [Hassan Rouhani] said that. This gave the impression that things were not as bad. People didn’t pay too much attention.

“We were the first station that asked people to stay home,” he continues. "That was February 26.”

Obali believes Iran wanted to downplay the effects of COVID-19 to maintain public support for the government. Heading into 2020, Iran’s economy was in free fall due to U.S.-imposed sanctions targeting its oil, shipping, and banking industries. In November, a series of protests over fuel prices had evolved into calls to overthrow of the government and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; they ended in violence and a six-day Internet shutdown. In January, military General Qasem Soleimani, second in power only to Khamenei, was assassinated by a U.S. drone strike. Iran’s official voter turnout for the Parliamentary elections in November was 40 percent, but Obali believes the actual number was closer to 15 to 17 percent; his sources reported no lines at the polls, even in Tehran, the capital.

Meanwhile, dissenting voices within Iran have been silenced. Obali’s Twitter feed shows footage of a mid-March appearance by the actor Amir Hosein Rostami on Iranian TV. In the clip, Rostami challenges the official narrative that the government had only recently become aware of the magnitude of the coronavirus outbreak; his segment is eventually cut off, and the presenter reappears to announce that his views “were contrary to the program’s atmosphere.”

Obali also says the Iranian government has deflated its death toll by misattributing COVID-19 fatalities to other conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes. Mass graves have been dug in remote areas — some as early as January, according to Obali — big enough to hold eight bodies each and deep enough for crops to be planted over them afterward. Of these he also has photos.

As the virus has intensified around the world, Iranian people have gone back to work. They have to: the government is providing no financial aid.

One piece of news from Iran that has been reported in the western media: rioting in eight prisons in regions inhabited by ethnic minorities, particularly Arabs. In early March, Iran freed 54,000 prisoners to help combat the spread of the virus, allowing those with less than five years left on their sentences to return home.

But Obali says that directive did not include “political prisoners,” or human and civil rights activists. Those prisoners, he says, have been “forcing the issue” by burning whatever material they can find. The guards have retaliated, killing not only the prisoners, but family members who’ve come to visit.

“The reactions to the prison uprisings are so violent because they are Arabs,” Obali says. “They’re really being slaughtered there.”

The United States, of course, has also been criticized for its management of COVID-19 — and has its own rising death toll. Why so much attention from a TV station 6,000 miles away?

“I believe after this coronavirus thing is over … what happens in a country is not just that country’s business anymore,” Obali says. “Unfortunately, in the U.S., Iran has become a partisan issue. But terrorism is terrorism. The Iranian government is taking people’s money. It has escrow accounts with hundreds of billions of dollars that it’s not willing to spend. Instead it’s using this time to put pressure on the U.S. to lift sanctions. It’s not going to help the Iranian people. It’s only going to empower the government. The U.S. has a moral obligation as a leader, as the most powerful country in the world, to stand for humanity.”

If the Iranian government won’t care for its people, he says, then somebody should.

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