Virus-Hit Iran Reopens Mosques For Holy Ramadan Nights

This picture taken on April 25, 2020, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan shows a view from outside the closed Imamzadeh Saleh in the Iranian capital Tehran’s Shemiran district, as all mosques and places of worship are closed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. PHOTO: ATTA KENARE / AFP)

 

In spite of their fears over the coronavirus, hundreds of pious Iranians took advantage of the temporary opening of mosques on Wednesday to pray at one of the holiest times of the year.

The mask-clad faithful for the most part adhered to social distancing guidelines as they sat in designated areas of Reihanat al-Hussein mosque, in west Tehran.

Clutching their own prayer mats and Korans, they showed up with their families, including a couple with a baby, and appeared to be in high spirits.

Worshippers spilled out into grounds outside the mosque were disinfected by a sanitary worker in a hazmat suit who sprayed them as he walked among them.

But some of the gaps between those seated at the back appeared to be too close for comfort, and the Basij militia were on hand to ensure they kept apart.

“Of course, everybody is worried about the disease, even my own family,” said one of the worshippers who gave his name only as Mahmoudi.

“When I decided to come they were concerned about me and I promised them to respect the directives,” he said.

“So I came and saw that everyone is respecting the (social) distancing, otherwise, I wouldn’t have stayed and I’d have gone back home.”

Iran reopened the mosques for two hours from midnight for Laylat al-Qadr, a high point during the fasting month of Ramadan that marks when the Koran was revealed to Prophet Mohammed.

The Islamic republic shut its mosques and shrines in March as part of its efforts to contain the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak of COVID-19.

The first cases emerged in the Shiite holy city of Qom on February 19 and spread rapidly to all 31 of the country’s provinces.

It has gone on to claim nearly 6,800 lives in Iran.

‘Special ceremony’

President Hassan Rouhani, whose government has faced criticism for being slow to react to the crisis, praised worshippers for abiding by health guidelines.

“There were concerns about how people would follow health guidelines if mosques were opened, but last night, you found that it was a special ceremony,” he said on Wednesday.

“Wherever people participated, they followed all the instructions,” he said in televised remarks.

Health Minister Saeed Namaki had sounded a note of caution on Tuesday as he announced the special reopening for three out of the next five nights.

And on Wednesday he admitted it had been a “difficult and risky decision… criticised by some of my colleagues”.

“Everywhere people observed the instructions, except in one county where, contrary to our protocols, tea was offered to the participants,” he said.

Health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said another 50 people died of coronavirus and 1,958 were infected in the previous 24 hours, taking the overall tolls to 6,783 dead and 112,725 infected.

The Qadr ceremony lasts three nights because the exact time of the revelation of the words of God is unknown.

Those at the first gathering overnight at Tehran’s Al-Hussein mosque appeared to be exalted at the chance to finally pray after being shut out for more than two months.

“We have brought masks and gloves and everything. I think that if we follow the security and health protocols, then nothing will happen to us and we will be able to continue with this ceremony,” said Masoumeh, a housewife.

For Amir Hosein, a private sector worker, it was a chance not to be missed.

“These nights are special for people and I think the government wasn’t able to cancel these ceremonies because we go out and pray together: that is the whole joy of this ceremony.”

AFP

Iranians Rally On 41st Anniversary Of Shah’s Ouster

Iranians attend commemorations marking 41 years since the Islamic Revolution in the capital Tehran’s Azadi Square on February 11, 2020.  ATTA KENARE / AFP

 

Thousands of Iranians massed on Tuesday for commemorations marking 41 years since the Islamic Revolution, in a show of unity at a time of heightened tensions with the United States.

Waving flags of Iran and holding portraits of the founder of the Islamic republic, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, they converged on Tehran’s Azadi Square despite chilly temperatures.

“Death to America” and “We will resist until the end,” read some of the banners carried by those in the crowd.

“Iran is looking forward to creating another epic,” read the news ticker on state television, which called for a massive turnout.

The celebrations mark the day that Shiite cleric Khomeini returned from exile and ousted the shah’s last government.

The state has appealed for a strong turnout as a show of solidarity after a year in which Iran has been shaken by protests and military tensions with the United States.

“Securing our country and our region depends on our unity, and participation in this rally is a symbol of this unity,” Hadi Khamenei, brother of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television.

Iran’s economy has been battered since US President Donald Trump in 2018 abandoned an international nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions and a stated campaign of “maximum pressure”.

When Iran raised petrol prices in November, nationwide protests erupted and turned violent before security forces put them down amid a near-total internet blackout.

Tensions with Washington escalated in early January when a US drone strike killed powerful Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.

Iran retaliated by targeting US forces but then accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people on board, in a tragedy that sparked anger at home and abroad.

Soleimani’s daughter Zeinab was to address the crowd at Azadi Square on Tuesday, followed by President Hassan Rouhani.

This year’s anniversary also comes ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in Iran.

The alliance of moderates and reformers that propelled Rouhani to power in 2013 is scrambling to avoid losing its majority in the February 21 election.

Rouhani’s government has come under intense pressure from conservatives for agreeing the 2015 nuclear deal that has unravelled since Trump’s decision to withdraw from it and reimpose crippling sanctions.

AFP

Iranians Flock To Soleimani’s Hometown For Burial

Iranian mourners gather around a vehicle carrying the coffin of slain top general Qasem Soleimani during the final stage of funeral processions, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020.   AFP

 

Iranians gathered in Kerman for the burial Tuesday of top general Qasem Soleimani in the final stage of funeral processions after he was killed in a US strike in Iraq.

The massive number of mourners in the hometown of the slain commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations arm appeared to match the huge turnout seen in the cities of Tehran, Qom, Mashhad and Ahvaz.

A hugely popular figure in the Islamic republic, Soleimani was killed outside Baghdad airport on Friday in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, ratcheting up tensions with arch-enemy Iran which has vowed “severe revenge”.

“The enemy killed him unjustly,” the Revolutionary Guards’ top commander, Major General Hossein Salami said, adding the process of “expelling the United States from the region has begun”.

“Our will is firm. We also tell our enemies that we will take revenge, and that if they (strike again) we will set fire to what they love,” he told the sea of black-clad mourners.

“They themselves know well what places I am talking about.”

Schoolgirls joined chants of “Death to Trump” from the crowd, an AFP correspondent reported.

The assassination of Soleimani set off an escalating war of words between Iran and the United States.

In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani on Monday warned Trump to “never threaten” Iran, after the US leader issued a US strike list of 52 targets in the Islamic republic.

On Tuesday, Iranian lawmakers voted to designate all US forces around the world “terrorists” over Soleimani’s killing.

Parliament also agreed to bolster the coffers of the Quds Force, which Soleimani led, by $244 million (200 million euros).

 ‘Boils the blood’ 

In Kerman, people converged from afar on Azadi Square where two flag-draped coffins were on display, with the second one reportedly containing the remains of Soleimani’s closest aide, Brigadier General Hossein Pourjafari.

“We’re here today to pay respects to the great commander of the holy defence,” said one of the mourners who came from the southern city of Shiraz to attend the funeral in Kerman.

“Haj Qasem was not only loved in Kerman, or Iran, but also the whole world,” Hemmat Dehghan told AFP.

“The security of the whole world, Muslims, Shiites, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and especially Iran, all owe it to him,” said the 56-year-old war veteran.

Another mourner said Soleimi’s assassination “boils the blood of the Iranian people”.

“He was seen as a great man who was ready to serve his people both then in the war and now. He must certainly be avenged,” said Sara Khaksar, an 18-year-old student.

Friday’s assassination of the 62-year-old Soleimani heightened international concern about a new war in the volatile Middle East.

Iraq’s parliament has demanded the government expel the 5,200 American troops stationed in the country in response to the drone attack which also killed top Iraqi military figure Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Baghdad requested in a letter to the UN — seen by AFP — that the Security Council condemn the US strike so that “the law of the jungle” is not allowed to prevail.

The operation represented “a dangerous escalation that could lead to a devastating war in Iraq, the region and the world,” wrote Iraq’s UN ambassador Mohammed Hussein Bahr-Aluloom.

 Markets on edge 

On Sunday night, the US mistakenly notified the Iraq of an imminent troop pullout in a letter that sparked confusion in Washington.

“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” said the letter, whose authenticity was confirmed to AFP by both Iraqi and US defence officials.

In the letter, US Brigadier General William Seely said the US-led coalition would “be repositioning forces”.

But Pentagon Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said the letter was a mere “draft” that was sent by mistake.

Germany said Tuesday it was withdrawing some of its troops deployed as the anti-IS coalition in Iraq.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned on Monday that Iran must avoid “further violence and provocations”.

The European Union, whose foreign ministers will hold emergency talks on the crisis Friday, said it was in both Iran and Iraq’s interests to “take the path of sobriety and not the path of escalation”.

Saudi Arabia — an oil-rich US ally seen as vulnerable to Iranian counter strikes — also appealed for calm after a “very dangerous” escalation.

World financial markets have been on edge over the crisis.

“The new year has started with a bang in so far as volatility is concerned,” said Fawad Razaqzada at Forex.com.

“This is mainly due to the escalation of tensions between the US and Iran after Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani.”

Soleimani is expected to be buried at the martyrs’ cemetery in Kerman between 2:00 and 4:00 pm (1030 and 1230 GMT).

AFP

Iranians Feeling US Sanctions ‘In Their Bones’

Iranians embark on a protest against government’s policies. Credit: AFP

 

The latest round of US sanctions on Iran’s vital oil industry may have just started on Monday but some Iranians say they have already become a basic fact of life.

“I don’t need the news to tell me that sanctions have started, I am feeling them in my bones,” said Farzad, a 65-year-old pensioner.

“Anyone who goes to the market to acquire their basic needs will feel the sanctions straight away,” he told AFP as headed to the Tajrish bazaar in northern Tehran for his weekly shop.

The last tranche of sanctions hit Iran on Monday, targeting its oil and financial sectors, following President Donald Trump’s decision in May to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Hit by months of economic turmoil since that decision, in part due to US pressure but also to long-standing problems in the domestic economy and banking sector, many Iranians were left nonplussed when the final sanctions hit.

“There have been sanctions forever, almost 40 years now, there is nothing new about that,” said Sogand, a retired college lecturer.

“America has power, so it bullies everyone. Not just us — they even bully the Europeans,” she added.

All over Iran, the mood is a mix of gloom and anxiety, defiance and anger.

“What we do is none of America’s business,” said Mehdi Mirzaee.

Lost cause 

His defiance came in spite of considerable personal hardship after his textiles workshop was forced to close over the rising price of wool.

“America has been hitting at us for the last 100 years, but we will never become their servants,” he said.

Others said they felt naive for having dared to hope their country’s international isolation would end with the nuclear deal signed with six world powers, including the US, in 2015.

“When the nuclear deal was signed, we Iranians were very happy. We thought everything would change for the better,” said Fereshteh Safarnezhad, a 43-year-old teacher.

“But unfortunately we were treated dishonourably by both the American and Iranian governments. The Americans never really committed to the deal and the Iranian government did not spend the cash it got from the deal on the people,” she said.

Iranians were not holding their breath for a quick solution to the country’s economic woes.

“The problem is Iran’s economy was sick anyway. Even if sanctions were lifted immediately, it would take years to cure it,” Safarnezhad said.

For others it is a lost cause.

“You can’t keep on trying to fix things with trial and error,” Farzad said.

“The government has been trying for the last 40 years and they have failed. They are just not up to the job.

“They should resign and allow someone who can do it to take up the job.”

AFP

Iranians Blame Govt For Return Of US Sanctions

Iranians embark on a protest against the government’s policies. Credit: AFP

 

Many Iranians blame their own government for the return of US sanctions, but they also fear it could be the “final nail in the coffin” for the floundering economy.

Despite days of protests and strikes across the country, there appeared to be less unrest as sanctions returned Tuesday — although that said little about the depth of despair, particularly among poorer sections of society.

“I feel like my life is being destroyed. The economic situation right now means that the working class must die,” said Ali Paphi, a construction worker.

“Sanctions are already badly affecting people’s lives. I can’t afford to buy food, pay the rent… No one cares about workers.”

Much of the damage was already done in the weeks preceding the return of sanctions, as US President Donald Trump’s aggressive rhetoric spooked investors and triggered a run on the rial.

That only added to deep-seated problems of corruption, a chaotic banking system and rampant unemployment after decades of mismanagement.

“Prices have been increasing for three or four months and everything we need has become so expensive, even before sanctions returned,” said Yasaman, a 31-year-old photographer in Tehran.

Like many in the capital, he believes Iran’s leaders will be forced to return to the negotiating table, as Trump hopes.

“I hope it will happen one day. Most people believe the politicians will have to drink ‘the poison cup’ eventually,” said Yasaman.

That was a reference, widely heard in Iran these days, to the famous phrase used by Iran’s revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini who said signing a truce to end the brutal eight-year war with Iraq in 1988 was like drinking “a cup of poison”.

Most Iranians have tuned out the endless US hostility, with which they have lived for four decades, so their anger is mostly directed at their own leaders.

“Prices are rising again, but the reason is government corruption, not US sanctions,” said Ali, a 35-year-old decorator.

Like many, he sees President Hassan Rouhani as powerless to improve things.

“He can’t solve the problems. It’s been shown several times that he is not the decision-maker in this country. Our problem is our representatives and system,” he added.

Wealthier and educated Iranians have also lost hope, but they have an option to leave — even if it weighs heavy on the heart.

Sogand, a young Iranian-American, came to live in Iran for the first time five years ago and had enjoyed the thaw in international tensions that accompanied the nuclear deal.

But in recent months, she grew worried about her status as a dual national — several have been arrested on espionage charges in Iran — and decided it was time to get out.

“I feel ashamed for abandoning my colleagues during this economic crisis. I feel guilty for having the resources to leave so quickly in front of my friends,” she said.

“(But) the economic destabilisation and the unravelling of any and all financial prospects in this country was the nail on the coffin.”

AFP

Iranians Protest Against Trump’s Policies

Iranians burn a doll representing Israel and America during a demonstration outside the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran on November 4, 2017. ATTA KENARE / AFP
Chanting “Death to America” and burning the US flag, thousands of Iranians protested in Tehran Saturday against President Donald Trump’s policies and to mark the anniversary of the 1979 US embassy siege.

The storming of the embassy in Tehran by students, months after the Islamic revolution, led to a 444-day hostage crisis and a break in diplomatic relations that continues to this day.

Protesters beat effigies of Trump with sticks in front of the former embassy compound while what appeared to be a dummy ballistic missile was put on display in a sign of defiance following new US sanctions.

“This year, Trump’s anti-Iranian policies have mobilised more Iranians,” Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

Trump’s administration has taken a tougher line with Iran, threatening to tear up an international accord on its nuclear programme.

Last month Trump refused to certify the 2015 deal between Tehran and world powers that lifted sanctions in return for limits on Iran’s atomic programme, saying he could pull out “at any time”.

The United States has also imposed new sanctions over the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile programme.

A statement read out at Saturday’s protest said Iranians “see the criminal America as their main enemy and condemn the denigrating remarks of the hated US president against the great Iranian people and the Revolutionary Guards.”

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranians on Thursday to never forget that “America is the enemy”.

“To give in to the Americans makes them more aggressive and insolent. The only solution is to resist,” he said.

AFP

Nuclear Deal: Iranians Mock Trump Over ‘Ridiculous’ Speech

US President Donald Trump. SAUL LOEB / AFP

Iranians responded with anger and mockery on Saturday to the bellicose criticism of their government by US President Donald Trump who threatened to tear up the landmark nuclear deal.

Trump’s use of the phrase “Arabian Gulf” rather than “Persian Gulf” particularly hit a nerve in a country with a fierce nationalistic streak.

“Everyone knew Trump’s friendship was for sale to the highest bidder. We now know that his geography is too,” wrote Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Twitter, referring to the US alliance with Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.

Despite pressure from the Arab Gulf monarchies, most international bodies still use “Persian Gulf” as the conventional name for the region’s waterway, and many Iranians shared photos of US veterans’ medals and graves referring to the “Persian Gulf conflict” of the 1990s.

In his White House speech on Friday, Trump reeled off a list of grievances committed by the “Iranian dictatorship, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world.”

He threatened to “terminate” the 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and six world powers unless Congress passed stringent new sanctions.

But as Iranians headed to their offices on Saturday — the first day of the work week in Iran — the reaction was often one of bemusement.

“Trump’s statements are so ridiculous that it actually works in Iran’s favour. Speaking about the ‘Arabian Gulf’ is taken very badly by people here,” said Abbas, a 40-year-old banker who only gave his first name.

“The reaction of the Europeans shows that the United States is isolated, and only Saudi Arabia and Israel have supported Trump,” he added.

The other signatories to the nuclear deal — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — have called for its preservation, saying that Iran is clearly sticking to its commitments.

Trump’s efforts to reach out to ordinary Iranians, who he referred to as the “longest-suffering victims” of the Islamic regime, also appeared to have fallen on deaf ears, with many recalling the travel ban he slapped on them earlier this year.

His Instagram page was inundated by more than a million comments, mostly from jeering Iranians.

“I was so angry last night. This person hates Iran so much that even if we don’t support the ideas of the regime, we find ourselves supporting them and the Revolutionary Guards,” said Layla, 42, in her Tehran artisan shop.

“Trump stopped Iranians going to the US. How can he say he’s on our side?” she added.

– ‘Baseless accusations’ –

For all the bluster, Trump’s strategy was not as tough as many had predicted.

It placed new sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, but did not designate them a foreign terrorist organisation as trailed in the run-up to the speech.

The hardline Kayhan newspaper spun this as a victory, saying Trump had not “dared” to do so after the Guards warned the US would have to move its regional bases out of reach of Iranian missiles.

President Hassan Rouhani had pushed back against the Revolutionary Guards’ deep involvement in the economy after winning re-election earlier this year.

But Trump’s threats have brought a new solidarity among Iran’s often fractious institutions.

“We have dissatisfactions, for example there are economic problems,” said Bahram Siavoshi, 36, as he walked to work at a private finance firm in Tehran.

“But if it comes to it, we will stand together to the end, and will defend even the Guards. Their efforts cannot be ignored. If it wasn’t for them we would be like Syria or Yemen.”

Rouhani took to the airwaves shortly after Trump’s speech on Friday night, dismissing it as “nothing but the repetition of baseless accusations and swear words”.

“He has not studied international law. Can a president annul a multilateral international treaty on his own?” Rouhani said.

Nonetheless, the deal’s future hangs in the balance as the US Congress has 60 days to decide how to tighten sanctions, or possibly introduce new red lines that would trigger a US response.

“If the Congress goes ahead with new sanctions, then the deal is dead and Iran will restart its nuclear programme and move forward full-steam ahead in all fields,” Mohammad Marandi, a professor at the University of Tehran, told AFP.

“Iran will probably invest even more than before in order to show the Americans that they can’t get away with destroying the agreement.”

AFP