Iran asks for billions in loans as virus death toll climbs

TEHRAN, Iran, March 13 ------ Iran said Thursday it asked the International Monetary Fund for a $5-billion loan to fight the coronavirus, the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that it has sought such assistance, in a staggering admission of how fragile its economy has become amid the epidemic and punishing U.S. sanctions. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the Washington-based IMF should “stand on right side of history & act responsibly” by releasing the funds. He also said the fight against the virus, which has infected more than 10,000 people in Iran and killed hundreds, has been “stymied by vast shortages caused by restrictions,” a reference to the U.S. sanctions.

Even before the virus struck, Iran’s economy was being battered by plunging oil prices and the sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump since May 2018 after he unilaterally withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal that Tehran struck with world powers. Iran’s Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati said he asked for the $5 billion loan last week in a letter to IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva. She had said the IMF was prepared to make rapid support available to low-income countries through a $50 billion emergency fund that the group maintains to help nations facing an economic crisis. IMF spokesman Gerry Rice confirmed it had received a loan request from Iran. He said the IMF is “proceeding expeditiously with all requests and in line with our policies.”

The last time a loan for Iran was approved from the IMF was under its final shah in 1960, well before the revolution that established clerical rule. Zarif also demanded that the U.S. immediately halt what he called a “campaign of economic terrorism” and lift sanctions, saying in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that Washington has made it increasingly difficult for Iran to export oil and virtually impossible to import medicine and medical equipment to treat those with the illness. He said it is “unconscionable” that the U.S. government has not only increased its “maximum pressure” campaign “just as the virus has spread and is killing our most vulnerable citizens, but that it additionally has the audacity to lecture us on containing the coronavirus as it itself is evidently incapable of containing its onslaught.”

Iran says it needs more N95 face masks, ventilators, surgical gowns, testing kits, portable digital X-ray machines and other medical supplies. The World Health Organization recently sent Iran a shipment of medical gear via cargo plane, including 1,100 kits that can test more than 105,000 people for the virus. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said 75 people had died in Iran in the past 24 hours from the coronavirus, pushing the death toll to 429. The number of Iranians with the COVID-19 disease was 10,075. There are concerns that the number of infections is much higher than the confirmed cases reported by the government, with some Iranian lawmakers even speaking out.

The outbreak has not spared Iran’s top officials, with its senior vice president, Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials among those infected. Iran has suspended schools and banned spectators from stadiums, but religious shrines remain open and the markets and streets of the capital, Tehran, which has been hit hardest by the virus, are still crowded. The head of Tehran’s task force for combating the virus, Ali Reza Zali, said most people in the capital are not treating the crisis seriously enough and many are not taking any preventive measures.

For most people, the 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 and the COVID-19 illness it causes.