Iranian official’s off-message tweets spark coronavirus row with China
A confrontation on social media between a senior Tehran official and the Chinese ambassador over coronavirus has exposed divisions within the Iranian government over Beijing's alleged responsibility in allowing the devastating disease to spread in Iran.
Kianuch Jahanpur, the spokesman for Iran's health ministry, said that coronavirus statistics presented by China were a "bitter joke" and led governments to downplay its threat.
He hinted that Beijing initially misled the world into believing the coronavirus was a relatively mild disease - akin to influenza and with a similarly low death rate.
"If in China they say an epidemic was controlled in two months, one should really think about it," Jahanpur, who is also medical doctor, wrote.
"Based on the epidemiological information and reports provided by Chinese researchers, 11 academic centres in the world [initially] considered the novel coronavirus to be less dangerous than at least type-A influenza. Today's findings prove it wrong. And we trust our own findings more."
His tweet led to a rush by Iranian officials to limit the diplomatic fallout from China - considered a particularly valuable ally for Tehran, amid US sanctions - after Beijing voiced anger about the health official's remarks.
Chang Hua, China's ambassodor to Tehran, responded angrily to Jahanpur's tweet about the coronavirus outbreak.
"The Ministry of Health of China has a press conference every day. I suggest that you read their news carefully in order to draw conclusions," he said.
Dr. Jahanpur hit back saying it "will be useful for honorable ambassadors and the media in all countries, particularly in friendly countries" to follow the Iranian health ministry's daily press conferences - a clear reference to China.
This appeared to spark a complaint from the Chinese embassy against Jahanpur, with Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Sayed Abbas Mousavi, responding with a tweet praising China.
"The Chinese bravery, dedication & professionalism in Covid-19 containment deserve acknowledgment. The Islamic Republic of Iran has always been thankful to China in these trying times," Mousavi said.
Chang Hua responded by saying that "rumours" cannot harm the warm ties between Iran and China.
In a more conciliatory tweet - which appeared to have been made under pressure from more senior government officials - Jahanpur later said that "foreigners" should not try to sow dissension between Iran and China.
He also praised China's assistance to Iran in the wake of the devastating coronavirus outbreak, which has killed at least 3,739 Iranians, according to official figures.
The Iranian ambassador to China, Mohammed Keshavarzzadeh, recently announced that China had sent 28 aid packages to Iran, including masks, ventilators, gloves, and testing kits.
On social media, some Iranians praised Jahanpur for his honesty with his off-message remarks.
Other Iranians, considered close to the Tehran government, reportedly criticised the doctor, calling him a "US stooge".
China has come under increasing international criticism due to alleged attempts to suppress and downplay the Covid-19 threat, during the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan.
A report by the UK-based neoconservative think-tank, the Henry Jackson Society, claimed that China is culpable for trillions of dollars in damages to countries across the world.
This is due to the devastation the disease has caused to economies across the globe, with unprecedented lockdowns and curfews imposed to prevent its spread.
Two Egyptian lawyers reportedly launched a lawsuit against China on Sunday demanding damages of $10 trillion, but their actions were widely mocked on social media.