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Top U.S. Commander Says Iran Is Trying To Protect Its Military Amid Coronavirus Crisis

FILE - Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie commander of U.S. Central Command.

The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East has said Iran is "struggling" with the coronavirus, trying to protect key officials and the military from the pandemic.

"There's significant penetration in Iran, and I think that penetration has extended even to the senior leadership," Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said Wednesday in an event organized by the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Official figures released by the government indicate a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the last two weeks with one in five Iranians having been infected according to a health official.

According to the latest official announcement made by the newly appointed Health Ministry Spokesperson Dr. Sima Sadat Lari, the number of tested cases since February has now reached nearly 180,000. With 81 more deaths since Tuesday the toll has now gone up to 8,500.

Ehsan Mostafavi, a member of the task force set up to combat COVID-19 on Tuesday said about 15 million Iranians, one in five, may have been infected with coronavirus since the outbreak began.

McKenzie said Wednesday that the Islamic Republic has "made great sacrifices" to protect key personnel and parts of its military, including the Revolutionary Guard and its ballistic missile arsenal, its strategic air defense and parts of its navy.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been in self-isolation since February when the first wave of the epidemic emerged in Iran but has delivered a few speeches via television and had a few video conferences with government officials in charge of combating coronavirus.

Iran’s response to the pandemic has been haphazard and often unpredictable, as some measures to control the spread of the virus were coupled with a refusal to close religious sites in the first crucial weeks of the epidemic.

Presumably to meet Khamenei's wishes the government has opened mosques – for private prayers – despite the concerns expressed by health officials. On Wednesday the organization responsible for Friday prayers announced that from June 21 group prayers will resume in all but hotspots labelled as "red zones".

The number of new cases remains high, between 2-3 thousand a day, four months after the outbreak with a sharp economic impact including more than a 15 percent fall in the value of Iran’s currency.

Government officials attribute the rise in infections since the resumption of economic activities to people's reluctance to wear masks and to observe social distancing rules. But many blame the lack of coordination in the government and mismanagement for the rising numbers.