What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

In Iran, pandemic response complicated by ongoing tensions with the U.S.

So far, Iran is one of the countries hit hardest by the novel coronavirus. Thousands of people there are infected, and the death toll is skyrocketing. In addition, amid preparations for a subdued celebration of Iranian New Year, the ongoing conflict with the U.S. is never far from mind. Special correspondent Reza Sayah reports from Tehran about the volatile combination of factors.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19 is Iran. Thousands there have the virus, and the death toll is skyrocketing, amid preparations for a subdued Iranian new year.

    The conflict with the United States is now never far from mind there.

    As special correspondent Reza Sayah reports from Tehran, coronavirus and that confrontation make for a volatile mix.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Once a year in the streets of Tehran, Hajji Firuz welcomes to the first day of spring and Nowruz, the Iranian new year. Like Santa Claus, this soot-covered fictional character's job is to spread holiday joy, but, this year, he's not seeing many smiles.

  • Man (through translator):

    It's the worst new year ever. I have played for Hajji Firuz for 20 years. This is the first time I have seen it like this. They're not in a good mood.

  • Reza Sayah:

    A good mood is hard to find in Iran these days. The coronavirus outbreak is exploding. The daily death toll is hitting triple digits. More than 17,000 Iranians have tested positive.

    Mahmoud Sadeghi is among more than three dozen public officials who caught the virus. The lawmaker recovered last week. He spoke to us by video chat.

  • Mahmoud Sadeghi (through translator):

    I had totally surrendered to my destiny. I even started writing my will. I almost finished.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Sadeghi says he's heating the government's call to stay home. Many Iranians are doing the same. Tehran's streets, usually bustling with new year traffic, are nearly empty. With the coronavirus, a lot has changed.

    But here's what hasn't changed. At a time when the U.N. is calling for global cooperation to fight the coronavirus, Tehran and Washington are still in conflict, still damning one another, and, some say, edging closer to war.

    Last Wednesday marked the birthday of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general assassinated in January in a U.S. drone strike. On Soleimani's birthday, a rocket attack hit a military base in Iraq, killing two American soldiers. One day later, the Pentagon launched airstrikes targeting Iranian-backed Shia militias, saying they were responsible.

  • Mohammad Hashemi:

    Things are getting worse.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Tehran-based political commentator Mohammad Hashemi says, at a time when both countries should be focusing on containing a pandemic, war seems closer than ever.

  • Mohammad Hashemi:

    This was the worst time for such things happen, because everybody fear of another war in the region.

    And then, in the middle of the crisis, that Iran is trying to deal with this coronavirus outbreak.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Tehran and Washington are feuding over the coronavirus too. Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of covering up the outbreak.

  • Secretary Mike Pompeo:

    Instead of focusing on the needs of the Iranian people and accepting genuine offers of support, senior Iranian lied about Wuhan virus outbreak four weeks.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Last week, The Washington Post cited satellite images to report authorities in Iran raced to dig trenches at a cemetery in the city of Qom in an effort to hide the death toll. The site was so vast, The Post said, it was visible from space.

    Other news organizations picked up the story, some calling the site a mass grave.

  • Habib Abdolhossein:

    Well, I was shocked and terrified.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Habib Abdolhossein is a reporter at Press TV, Iran's state-funded English language news network. He says the site was no secret and prepared to accommodate the Islamic custom of burying loved ones within 24 hours.

  • Habib Abdolhossein:

    Satellite images cannot prove that a mass grave exist somewhere or not.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Do you understand that some of the critics of the Islamic Republic of Iran say that Press TV is the state's news network, and they don't cover it objectively?

  • Habib Abdolhossein:

    Of course.

  • Reza Sayah:

    You do?

  • Habib Abdolhossein:

    Of course. Yes, of course.

    I cannot deny that there have been mismanagement. Definitely, there have been mismanagement, dysfunction in Iran and other countries. But this is something that happens, either in Iran or in Italy. This is not fair. They're just trying to blame Iran and pile up pressure on Iran.

  • Reza Sayah:

    This report written by a local reporter in Qom three weeks prior to The Washington Post report announced preparation of roughly 100 graves at the same cemetery for victims of the virus, suggesting the site wasn't a secret.

    Numerous pictures posted on social media and the cemetery Web site also show the site was prepared just as other graves are prepared in Iran.

    Perhaps no voice in Iran is more objective when it comes to the coronavirus than the World Health Organization. They neither represent the Iranian government nor U.S. interests. They're working to contain the virus. And they granted us an interview.

    The sign says no entry without wearing a mask. So we're going to put on a mask. There have been critics of the Iranian government who say they haven't done enough, they reacted too slow. What is your response to those allegations?

  • Christoph Hamelmann:

    You know, two weeks ago, the response was a bit more difficult, because there were only two or three countries which had self-sustained epidemic. So, there was a lot of focus on what do they do different or maybe wrong or not to that scale as others?

    That kind of debate has vanished to a largest degree.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Are you satisfied with the response here?

  • Christoph Hamelmann:

    I'm very satisfied with the response, in terms of the planning. The national plan has really all the components we are recommending a national plan should have.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Here, on the eve of every last Wednesday before the new year, Iranians hold a Festival of Fire. They cast aside bad luck and look forward to happier days.

    With the coronavirus, many celebrated from inside their homes. For them, happier days will come if Tehran and Washington can ever set aside their differences.

  • Saghar Sahadjami (through translator):

    This is not the time for politics to be injected into the daily challenges of people.

  • Reza Sayah:

    And share in the fight against a growing pandemic.

    For the "PBS NewsHour." I'm Reza Sayah in Tehran.

Listen to this Segment