An increasingly isolated Iran tries to control virus crisis

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A worker disinfects a public bus against coronavirus in Tehran, Iran, in early morning of Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Iran's government said Tuesday that more than a dozen people had died nationwide from the new coronavirus, rejecting claims of a much higher death toll of 50 by a lawmaker from the city of Qom that has been at the epicenter of the virus in the country. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

DUBAI – Iran girded Wednesday for a long battle against the coronavirus that is spreading rapidly across the country and the wider Middle East, even though officials in the Islamic Republic had earlier minimized the outbreak that has now killed 19 people, the highest toll outside of China.

President Hassan Rouhani said there were no immediate plans to quarantine cities, but he acknowledged it may take “one, two or three weeks” to get control of the virus in Iran, which has been linked to most of the over 210 confirmed cases in the region.

As Iran's 80 million people find themselves increasingly isolated in the region by the outbreak, the country's sanctions-battered economy saw its currency slump to its lowest level against the U.S. dollar in a year.

Rouhani sought to portray the virus crisis in terms of Iran's tense relationship with the U.S., which under President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear deal with world powers and sent its economy into freefall.

“We must not let the United States attach a new virus to the coronavirus by stopping our social activities through tremendous fear. This is a conspiracy we see today and you see in foreign propaganda,” Rouhani said at a Cabinet meeting, according to a transcript on the presidency's website.

“They are also suffering from coronavirus. Influenza has killed 16,000 people in the United States, but they are not speaking about themselves. Americans better take care of thousands of flu casualties in their own country,” he said.

The comments by Rouhani came as Iran appeared to be slowly coming to grips with the scope of the crisis.

In Tehran overnight, mass transit workers disinfected buses and the capital's subway system, removing overhead handles to try to limit surfaces where the virus could rest. Traffic again appeared lighter on Tehran's normally gridlocked roads amid a winter rain. Signs warned Iranians not to touch surfaces in crowded areas.