February 29, 2020

IRAN: Middle East Region’s Nation Hardest-Hit By Coronavirus Is Islamic Republic Of Iran With Death Toll At Least 34. Pro-Regime Iranians REFUSE TO STOP Licking (ew) Islamic Shrines. ๐Ÿ˜ฑ

Bloomberg News
written by Arsalan Shahla and Marc Champion
Wednesday February 26, 2020

It’s been three days since the Iranian city of Qom banned one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines from holding religious ceremonies in an attempt to contain the spread of coronavirus. On Wednesday, it was still open with pilgrims pushing at fences erected to stop them kissing the gilded shrine.

The Iranian government has become the target of popular anger and ridicule over its slow and confused response to the outbreak, which has killed at least 19 people in the country so far with wildly fluctuating reports on how many people actually have the virus.

At least part of the cause appears to be an over-powerful clergy, unwilling to interfere with religious observance. Shiite pilgrims visiting a circuit of shrines in Qom and Mashhad in Iran, as well as Najaf in Iraq, have been identified as a primary source of the disease’s spread across the Gulf.

Still, the faithful continue to have access to shrines. As recently as Wednesday, state TV said Friday prayers would go ahead as usual, including in Tehran, where the main Mosalla mosque can hold tens of thousands. A day later, as Saudi Arabia announced it was closing access to the shrine at Mecca, Tehran’s Friday prayers headquarters said they would now be canceled.

Their counterparts in Qom issued a statement saying prayers would go forward before news agencies reported they too had been canceled. The epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, the city of 1.2 million remains free in stark contrast to the quarantining of affected urban centers in Italy and China.

“The biggest question is why Qom has not been quarantined,” said Mehdi, a 28 year-old photographer who lives and works in Qom. “It's getting worse with each passing day. They’re disinfecting the shrine by the hour, but unfortunately, people still go there and touch and kiss all over the place in reverence.”

Saudi Arabia temporarily halted religious visits to its holiest cities, which draw millions of people a year, to help prevent the spread of coronavirus into the country.

In Qom, tea houses, cafes for smoking hookah pipes and gyms are shut, as well as many restaurants and stores, and there are few pedestrians on the streets, according to Mehdi. Kits to test for the virus are scarce, and a recent delivery of face masks sold out within hours. The government has begun distributing packages containing face masks, disinfectant and sanitary gloves, but supplies are insufficient to cover the whole city, Mehdi said.

On Wednesday, the normally bustling Grand Bazaar was deserted, yet people were still visiting the Imamzadeh mosques—mausoleums for the lesser offspring of Holy Imams related to the Prophet Mohammed—as well the Fatima Masoumeh shrine, according to Hamid, a driver for Snapp, the Iranian equivalent of Uber.

The problem is that people would take offense at being shut out of Qom’s holy places, said Hamid, speaking by phone from his car. “It’s a religious city” he said. “If it was up to me, I’d shut all the Imamzadeh mosques and the shrine, but people go everywhere as they please.”
It seems as if Islamist are offended by everything. Geesh. ๐Ÿ˜ฑ (emphasis mine)
To be sure, there are other equally important reasons to help explain the Iranian response. There’s a shortage of medical supplies caused by U.S. sanctions and the prioritization of geopolitics over domestic health saw some 3 million face masks shipped to China that are now needed at home.

On Tuesday, the Chinese embassy in Tehran said it was in turn donating 250,000 masks to the Iranian Ministry of Health and Medical Education, according to China’s official People’s Daily.

Iran faces more disruption it can ill afford. With its oil sales hit by American sanctions, the economy has been dependent on goods exports to neighbors that are now shutting their borders. The rial, Iran’s battered currency, has fallen 11.5% since Feb. 12, according to quotes from three open-market traders in Tehran.

For Qom, pilgrimage is critical. The bustling city is visited by about 20 million domestic and 2.5 million foreign tourists per year. Now it’s the city worst hit by covid-19. Iranian state TV confirmed 139 cases nationwide by Wednesday afternoon.

On Feb. 21, the custodian of the Fatameh Massoume Shrine accused the U.S. of targeting his city with coronavirus, as “the enemy” tried to sow fear and break Iran’s resistance.

Still, “you can't chalk it all up to officials,” said Mehdi, the photographer, speaking by phone. While the shrine and mosques were open, they are much less trafficked than usual. The problem was that believers insisted on continuing to visit.

Precisely how many cases and fatalities there are in Iran’s most religious city remains unclear. On Monday, a conservative parliamentarian from the city claimed it had suffered 50 coronavirus deaths, a figure swiftly denied by the authorities.

Yet the government’s own statistics have prompted mistrust, not least because the low number of registered cases relative to the deaths would suggest a mortality rate several times higher than the World Health Organization’s 2% estimate.

Adding to the confusion, the deputy head of the Qom University of Medical Sciences said 434 patients suspected of having the coronavirus have been hospitalized in recent days, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported on Wednesday. That would be a multiple of the government figure for all of Iran. Indeed, he himself was quarantined as a possible case.

Kuwait on Monday reported three positive cases from people who had been evacuated from Mashhad, even though Iranian authorities had identified no coronavirus in the city.

The relatively lax Iranian response contrasts with Italy, which sealed off about ten towns south of Milan and one near Venice the day after discovering a rash of covid-19 cases in the area. It also shut down the Venice carnival, one of the world’s great cultural festivals. Countermeasures taken by China, after its initial efforts at suppressing news of the virus failed, have been still more draconian.
The Washington Examiner
written by Alireza Nader
Thursday February 27, 2020

The past few days have been terrible for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Feb. 21 parliamentary elections were boycotted by a majority of the population, with credible reports that just 19% of the population voted nationwide. The election was more tightly controlled by the regime than ever before, as the “reformist” faction of the regime was prevented from running most of its candidates by the Guardian Council, which chooses who may run in Iranian elections. But the public has also given up on the regime’s electoral charade — Iranians know that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard make all decisions and that Parliament is useless.

The blow to the regime’s legitimacy comes at a particularly bad time for the ruling elite. The economy faces collapse as the Islamic Republic is challenged by internal rebellion and protests against its rule across the Middle East. Moreover, the regime’s negligence and incompetence in handling the coronavirus outbreak in Iran have made the country the second-biggest source of a possible global pandemic. The regime has close to zero legitimacy and credibility among Iranians.

The recent parliamentary elections were a crucial test for the regime’s legitimacy as it has faced nationwide protests and strikes for more than two years, culminating in a major popular uprising in November 2019. The Aban uprising (named after the Iranian month of Aban) shook the regime to its core. Dozens of Iranian cities, including the capital Tehran, witnessed anti-regime uprisings after a threefold increase in fuel prices.

Khamenei responded violently, ordering his security forces to kill and maim thousands of unarmed civilian protesters. He hoped that the parliamentary elections would steady the sinking ship of state as he urged Iranians to vote even if they didn’t “like” him. Instead, Iranians boycotted the elections en masse, as evidenced by videos of empty polling stations across the country and reports of historically low turnout.

The regime has declared voter turnout at 42% percent, but Jamal Orfi, chief of the National Elections Headquarters, has said only 11 million Iranians had voted out of a total of 58 million eligible voters, or 19%. Well-known pro-regime academic and political commentator Sadegh Zibakalam estimates voter turnout to have been 20-30%, contradicting the regime’s narrative. The truth may never be known, as the regime has refused to release detailed information on voting, especially from smaller towns and provinces, fearing it will demonstrate extremely low turnout. But even the regime’s claim of 42% turnout is quite low for a regime that rests its claim to rule on a popular “revolutionary” mandate.

The coronavirus outbreak has further sapped the population’s trust in the Islamic Republic. The regime lied to Iranians for weeks, claiming that Iran had not experienced cases of the coronavirus. The regime feared that a coronavirus-induced panic would suppress voter turnout. And the regime has still not taken proper measures to prevent coronavirus from spreading to Iran from China. Flights between Iran and China on the Revolutionary Guard-controlled Mahan Airlines, which appears to have carried the virus from China to Iran, are still continuing.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Iranians may have been infected by the virus, with many of the victims not even aware of their specific condition. The central city of Qom, Iran’s holiest city and the ruling clergy’s power center, appears to have witnessed the worst outbreak. Qom parliamentarian Ahmad Amirabadi believes as many as 50 residents of Qom have died, a claim strenuously denied by other regime authorities.

Regardless of the true numbers, the regime’s lying and negligence have exploded into popular anger. The northern city of Talesh has experienced anti-regime riots after local hospitals were chosen as quarantine centers, and democratic Iranian opposition activists have urged Iranians to stay home, not just for their safety, but as a boycott against the Islamic Republic. Surrounding countries have closed their borders with Iran, contributing to the possible collapse of an already severely stressed economy.

More riots and protests against the regime are increasingly likely.

The Islamic Republic has very little popular support and resembles a failed state with every coming day. The regime’s fig leaf of popular elections has finally fallen. Iranians know that neither the “reformists” nor “conservatives” can rescue them from their existential crisis. Khamenei and the Guard wield all power, but they are more than ever held responsible for Iran’s drastically declining fortunes.

Khamenei, fearing additional popular unrest, is increasingly relying on the Revolutionary Guard to maintain his authority. His new pick for speaker of Parliament is rumored to be Guard officer Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former mayor of Tehran known for his corruption and loyalty to the system. He is touted by the regime and its Western apologists as a “pragmatist,” but his ascent may be a possible sign of an even more authoritarian regime in the near future.

But not even the Revolutionary Guard is equipped to handle Iran’s economic, social, and political crises. The regime’s fortunes will decline, absent a major change, such as the death or removal of Khamenei from power or new negotiations with the United States.

The future is bleak — not only for the Iranian people but also for their oppressor regime.
The Associated Press
written by Jon Gambrell
Thursday February 27, 2020

The region’s hardest-hit nation is Iran, which is Saudi Arabia’s biggest nearby rival, with the death toll reaching at least 26, the largest behind only China, where the epidemic began.
As of 2/28/20, Iran coronavirus death toll is now at 34.
(emphasis mine)
The number of infections in Iran has spiked by over 100 to at least 254, but a World Health Organization official said he believes that figure is “a substantial underestimate of the true number.”

Those Iranians who have fallen ill include Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as “Sister Mary,” the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis, state media reported.

The state-run IRNA news agency reported that Ebtekar, the Iranian vice president and hostage-takers’ spokeswoman, had been infected and had quarantined herself at home. She had attended a Cabinet meeting Wednesday with President Hassan Rouhani and other top officials and appeared pale in video on state media.

During the 1979 hostage crisis, Ebtekar threatened to “destroy” the Americans if a military raid tried to rescue them.

Iran’s Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour seemed to address that, saying new labs in Iran were conducting tests and the number of confirmed cases could continue to rise.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised medical workers, calling their efforts “very invaluable.”

The virus has struck the official in charge of Iran’s response, as well as at least two lawmakers.

IRNA separately reported 81-year-old cleric Hadi Khosroshahi, Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican, died of the coronavirus infection at a Tehran hospital after falling ill in Qom. ___
UPDATE 2/29/20 at 4:50pm: Added info below. ๐Ÿ˜ฑ

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