Rare criticism by an Iranian Health Ministry official of China's controversial COVID-19 figures has angered hard-liners in Tehran, some of whom asked if he was speaking on behalf of the country's archrival, the United States.

Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said at a press briefing on April 5 that China's statistics about the number of deaths and infections from the coronavirus are "a bitter joke."


He added that, if Beijing said it got the coronavirus epidemic under control within two months of its outbreak, "one should really wonder [if it is true]."

The comments did not go down well with Chinese officials or hard-liners in Iran who reminded Jahanpur that China has stood with Iran at a time of severe crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak and crushing economic sanctions applied by Washington.

Many questions have been raised in the Western media recently about China's official coronavirus figures amid suggestions that the real numbers are likely much higher.

Officials wait outside a Beijing metro station to monitor for anyone infected with the coronavirus.

Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China's ruling Communist Party on April 3 of being involved in a "disinformation campaign" regarding the virus that is being used to "deflect from what has really taken place."

But similar criticism from an Iranian official whose country enjoys strong relations with China led to raised eyebrows and has provoked crunching criticism.

"At a time when China has been Iran's major helper in the fight against the coronavirus and has provided the country with several strategic products while bypassing the [U.S.] sanctions, Jahanpur suddenly becomes the spokesperson of [U.S. President Donald Trump] and [Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin] Netanyahu," the editor of the hard-line Mashreghnews.ir, Hassan Soleimani, said on Twitter on April 5.

Others, including Hossein Dalirian, a former editor with Tasnim news, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), went as far as calling for Jahanpur's dismissal from the ministry.

'Unforgettable' Support

China's ambassador to Iran, Chang Hua, also joined the chorus, telling Jahanpur he should follow press briefings by China's Health Ministry "carefully" in order to draw his conclusions.

Amid the mounting criticism and in what appeared to be damage control, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi tweeted in support of China, saying the country has led the way in suppressing the coronavirus while also "generously" helping other countries.

"The Chinese bravery, dedication, and professionalism in COVID-19 containment deserves acknowledgement," Musavi tweeted on April 5, adding that Iran has been grateful to China in these trying times with the hashtag #Strongertogether.

Musavi's tweet was retweeted by Chang, who said "Rumors cannot destroy our friendship."

For his part, Jahanpur attempted to calm the waters by publicly praising China for supporting his country during the outbreak.

"The support of China for the Iranian nation in [these] difficult days is unforgettable," he said on Twitter on April 6.

He also said the Iranian government and the nation are grateful and will not forget the countries that stood with them during the pandemic.

Jahanpur's tweet was welcomed by Ambassador Chang, who retweeted it while writing in Persian: "Friends should help each other, we fight together."

'Understated' Numbers

Citing current and former intelligence officials, The New York Times reported last week that the CIA has told the White House since February that China has understated the number of its infections.

China has claimed that it has been open and transparent about the outbreak of the coronavirus in the country, which emerged in December in Wuhan, where the virus has officially claimed the lives of 2,563 people and a nationwide total of 3,331 as of April 6. Beijing also claims some 81,708 total infections.

Radio Free Asia issued a report on March 27 suggesting tens of thousands of more people had died in Wuhan from the coronavirus than the official total given by Beijing.

Some Iranian officials believe the country's coronavirus outbreak, by far the worst in the Middle East, began because of Tehran's ties to China, which has been buying a limited amount of Iranian oil despite strict U.S. sanctions and penalties.

Iranian officials think the virus reached Qom, Iran's epicenter of the outbreak, through Chinese workers and students residing in the city who had recently traveled to China. Flights conducted to and from China by Iran's Mahan Air -- even after coronavirus cases were registered -- have been also blamed for exacerbating the epidemic.

Since the outbreak in Qom in February, Chinese officials have sent Iran regular shipments of relief materials -- including masks, test kits, and other equipment -- to help the country battle against the coronavirus.

According to official figures released on April 6, COVID-19 in Iran has killed 3,739 people and infected 60,500.

Much like the case of China, many people inside and outside of Iran have questioned Tehran's official figures on the pandemic.

An ongoing investigation by RFE/RL's Radio Farda that studies figures released by officials from Iran's 31 provinces puts the total number of deaths in Iran at 6,872 people as of April 5, with some 94,956 infections.

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.