Photo: Reuters

Iran: US ‘severely hampering’ battle against coronavirus

Iran is the worst-affected country in the Middle East to be hit by the coronavirus, and one of the deadliest outside of China.

The Islamic Republic’s Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raeisi tweeted this morning that, “In the past 24 hours we had 1,053 confirmed new cases of coronavirus and 129 new deaths.” He added that 14,991 people have been infected across the country, and the death toll has reached 853.

Officials are now calling on the public to remain at home, although the is yet to be an official order to do so.

Health Ministry Spokesperson Kianush Jahanpur announced that 113 people died overnight Saturday-Sunday, when the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases also grew by 1,209 within the same period, among the country’s total population of 85 million. The number of those who have recovered from the novel coronavirus is 4,790.

In efforts to stem the spread of the disease, Iran has launched a national screening plan aimed at identifying suspected patients early to relieve pressure on medical facilities. There are now an estimated 300,000 epidemic screening teams that are interviewing the population as to the state of their health conditions, with suspected cases being asked to accept testing and confirmed cases being instructed to home quarantine.

Just as in Israel —as well as countries hardest-hit by the virus such as Italy, Spain, Iran, France, South Korea, Japan and the United States — any travelers arriving in Iran are required to undergo a 14-day quarantine at home or in a designated venue. They are transported from airports by special chartered buses.

The ground force commander of the Iranian army, Kiomars Heidari, said that the military has launched a series of screening exercises in the provinces of Qom and Gilan, which will eventually be staged nationwide.  The Tasnim news agency cited Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raeisi as reporting that 10 million citizens were screened as of yesterday; 210,000 of whom were found to have suspected symptoms including headache and fever.

The Guardian Council of Constitution has announced that the second round of parliamentary elections, slated for 17 April, has been postponed until 11 September.

In the more immediate future, health officials have been urging the halt of all travels ahead of Persian New Year of Nowruz, which begins on 20 March. The holiday is traditionally marked with family visits and trips to vacation spots around the country.

On Friday, state media said security forces would empty the streets of cities across Iran within a day, after officials repeatedly complained that many people are ignoring calls to remain at home and avoid travel.

State TV reported that Tehran’s Governor General Anoushirvan Mohseni-Bandpey denied public posts on social media that the capital was to be put on a widescale lockdown as a “big lie.” He was also cited as saying that working hours at government offices will not be changed over the next few days, and that operating hours will be extended at large supermarkets.

A group of volunteers have been walking through the deserted streets of Tehran, where the majority of the new cases have been reported. Clad in protective face masks and head flashlights, the team sprayed disinfectant on building entrances, staircases, parking lots, cars and schools. 31-year-old Ali Roushani told Reuters that he and several of his friends were taking matters into their own hands to help their local community, and that they were not supported by any governmental organization.

Speaking to a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the country’s people were facing “hard days,” but that the government is making sure their “basic needs and essentials” are prepared for them.

The Iranian president also leveled an accusatory finger at the United States, claiming that the Islamic Republic’s fight against the coronavirus is being “severely hampered” by American sanctions. State media is reporting that Rouhani wrote to a number of world leaders, although neglected to specify which. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif issued a message on Twitter, confirming, “In (a) letter to counterparts @HassanRouhani informs how efforts to fight #COVID19 pandemic in Iran have been severely hampered by US sanctions, urging them to cease observing them.” He added, “It is IMMORAL to let a bully kill innocents.”

Iran’s economy was already battered by U.S. sanctions that curb oil and gas exports crucial for government revenues. Analysts predict a further slowdown in economic activity as the virus outbreak further damages Iranian businesses and is bound to hit its non-oil exports after many neighboring states and trade partners have closed their borders, expected to lead to a contraction this year. Tehran announced last Thursday that it has requested $5 billion in emergency funding to combat COVID-19 from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Despite the appeal for international funding to help efforts to combat the contagion, however, Iran shows no sign of diverting funds from its disputed nuclear development program. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reported that Tehran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is at least five times higher than the limit fixed under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) atomic deal with world powers. The United Nations nuclear watchdog assessed the amount of enriched uranium in the Islamic Republic reached at some 1,510 kilograms as of last month, in contrast to the 300kg maximum dictated by the pact. Many experts believe this level is sufficient to produce a nuclear bomb, even though Iran would need to enrich uranium at 90% rather than its current estimated rate of 4.5%.

The IAEA is also furious that the Islamic Republic has refused to allow inspection of possible undeclared sites or answer questions about previous atomic activities at the locations. Terms of the JCPOA to which Iran had agreed include regular IAEA access to its nuclear program in its entirety. The IAEA sounded an alarm last week over a lack of Iranian cooperation in clearing up what the IAEA suspects are undeclared activities and materials dating back to the early 2000s. Iran has denied it access to two sites.

Tehran has been progressively reducing its commitment to the accord in retaliation to Washington’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the pact and to reimpose crippling sanctions; announcing on 5 January its nuclear program would no longer be “subject to any restrictions in the operational sphere.”

Iran’s refusal to allow UN nuclear inspectors access to sites where they have questions about past activities is a “serious matter” and a first, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in Vienna on Monday (March 9). IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told reporters “what we need is access” and “within the competencies of the Agency, so there is no interpretation here.” He also called on the Islamic Republic “to cooperate immediately and fully with the Agency, including by providing prompt access to the locations specified by the Agency.”

Grossi, who assumed office 3 December  2019, said he was a diplomat and that “I never give up.”