Roughly nine out of 10 cases in the Middle East come from the Islamic Republic, which has reported nearly 15,000 infections and 853 deaths amid fears that cases may still be under-reported.
While most infected people recover, the virus spreads rapidly and can kill the elderly and those with breathing problems or other underlying illnesses.
Days of denials gave the virus time to spread in Iran as it marked the 41st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution with rallies and then held a parliamentary election in which authorities desperately sought to boost turnout.
Although Iran has one of the Mideast’s best medical systems, its hospitals appear overwhelmed and authorities have asked for 172 million masks from abroad. It also has asked the International Monetary Fund for $5 billion, the first such loan for Iran since 1962.
Dr. Amir A. Afkhami of George Washington University who studies Iran, said the loan request “speaks to how dire the situation is getting and them realizing that it’s spun out of control.”
With the Persian New Year of Nowruz on Friday, authorities appear unable or unwilling to halt travel as virus-hit towns threaten to set up their own checkpoints to turn away or even attack outsiders.
What happens next is unknown, but it will not only affect Iran’s civilian government and Shiite theocracy, whose members already have fallen ill, but also the wider world.