Dr Alireza Raisi, spokesman of Iran’s National Coronavirus Combat Taskforce, has apologized for his comments over a failure to apply Covid-19 public-health protocols in a religious ceremony. Raisi had drawn criticism from Friday prayer-leaders and media affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).
In a recorded message released on social media on Wednesday [January 20], Raisi said his statements earlier this week about a ceremony in Qom, home to Iran’s leading seminary schools, had been misinterpreted and that he had meant no disrespect. At a taskforce meeting on Sunday attended by President Hassan Rouhani, Raisi had displayed a picture of the ceremony in Qom and criticized its organizers for not requiring social distancing and masks.
“Those who carelessly organize [such ceremonies] are undoubtedly responsible for the death of our people in the next peak [of the pandemic] and must be punished,” Raisi had said. “This is not virtuous, they are killing people.”
While the state broadcaster (IRIB) simply ignored Raisi’s remarks in reporting the taskforce meeting, the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency on Monday published a piece headlined “Coronavirus Taskforce Spokesman’s Expression of Contempt for the People of Qom.” The commentary said the taskforce has failed to take effective action in other cities but its spokesman had accused the people of Qom of ignoring health protocols and suggested they were responsible for further Covid deaths.
Iran became in February the second country to report Covid after China, with Qom the first Iranian city where people died. The city has many seminaries and is considered the most important center of the Iranian clerical establishment.
Biden To Congress: Strike On Iran-Backed Forces Consistent With US Right to Self-Defense
After US House Democrats asked President Joe Biden to clarify his order for the airstrike on Iran-backed militia in Syria without permission from Congress, Biden said his orders were consistent with the US right to self-defense.
"I directed this military action to protect and defend our personnel and our partners against these attacks and future such attacks," Biden wrote in his letter to Congress.
The airstrikes, early on Friday Middle Eastern time, targeted militia sites on the Syrian side of the Iraqi-Syrian frontier, where groups backed by Iran control an important crossing for weapons, personnel, and goods.
Those strikes came in response to a February 15 attack in which rockets hit Erbil International Airport, which hosts a coalition military base. The attack killed a civilian contractor with the US-led military coalition and injured several others, including an American service member.
“The United States took this action pursuant to the United States' inherent right of self-defense as reflected in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter," Biden added. “I directed this military action consistent with my responsibility to protect United States citizens both at home and abroad and in furtherance of United States national security and foreign policy interests, pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct United States foreign relations and as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive.”
On Sunday, the official organ of the office of the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kayhan newspaper boasted about the recent attack on the Israeli ship in the Gulf of Oman being in response to the American and Israeli airstrikes against Iran-backed militia forces in Syria.
Kayhan: Attack On Israeli Ship Revenge To Attack On Iran-Backed Forces In Syria
The official organ of the office of the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kayhan newspaper boasted about the recent attack on the Israeli ship in the Gulf of Oman, and said the attack was in response to the American and Israeli airstrikes against Iran-backed militia forces in Syria.
Kayhan announced on Sunday that the explosion on the Israeli ship was the result of the attacks on Islamic Republic proxies in Syria and said: “Mischief in Syria and Iraq received a response in Yemen and Oman sea.
Helios Ray cargo ship owned by the Ray Shipping Company in Tel-Aviv was en route to Singapore when it suffered a mysterious explosion.
Kayhan mentioned that the US and Israel have increased their attacks against the “axis of resistance” in recent months and therefore the resistance groups targeted an Israeli ship in the Gulf of Oman.
The newspaper, which is published under the direct control of Khamenei’s representative, also mentioned the US military’s attack on the facilities of Iran-backed groups in Syria by the order of President Joe Biden and wrote: “With this attack, the US Command has exposed itself to revenge attacks”.
Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz said on Saturday his "initial assessment" was that Iran was responsible for an explosion on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman.
The ship, a vehicle-carrier named MV Helios Ray, suffered an explosion between Thursday and Friday morning. A US defense official in Washington said the blast left holes above the waterline on both sides of the hull. The cause was not immediately clear and no casualties were reported.
Afghan Foreign Minister: Russia Will Not Accept Return Of Taliban Regime
In his visit to Russia, the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Mohammad Hanif Atmar told Iran International in an exclusive interview that the Russian officials “once again clearly declared that they will not accept the return of the Taliban regime.”
Atmar told Iran International that Afghanistan and Russia “have a long history of cooperation and friendship” and his most important message to the Russian government was that Afghanistan invites Russia to have close cooperation in the fight against “the common threat of terrorism and violent fundamentalism”.
“The Russian government warned the Taliban that it will not help lift the UN sanctions on them unless they comply with their commitments under the Duha accord and reach of comprehensive peace agreement with the government of Afghanistan,” Atmar said about his talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
He said Russia and Afghanistan are in agreement over the process of peace and they have discussed the disagreements “in a friendly atmosphere” and there is no concern.
Regarding the visit of the Taliban delegation to Iran and Russia, Atmar said besides a little publicity, “Taliban were very disappointed and had to return to the negotiation table two days ago.”
The Afghan Foreign Minister said in the Taliban delegation’s visit to Russia, they were told that “the return of their regime is unacceptable,” they must stop the violence against their own people and return to the negotiation table. He said the Taliban hoped to get the backing of Iran and Russia in opposition to Afghanistan and the US, but they were not successful.
He also emphasized that Kabul welcomes the new US administration’s decision to review the Doha accord.
Saudi Arabia: Iran-Backed Houthi Missile & Drones Intercepted Before Hit
Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday that it intercepted a missile attack and bomb-laden drones targeting its capital and a southern province, the latest in a series of airborne assaults by the Iran-backed rebels Houthis of Yemen.
The Saudi-led military coalition fighting in the Yemen war announced the Iran-backed Houthis had launched a ballistic missile toward Riyadh and three booby-trapped drones toward the province of Jizan, with a fourth toward another southwestern city and other drones being monitored. No casualties or damages were initially reported. There was no immediate comment from the Houthis.
The attack comes amid sharply rising tensions in the Middle East, a day after a mysterious explosion struck an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman. That blast renewed concerns about ship security in the strategic waterways that saw a spate of suspected Iranian attacks on oil tankers in 2019.
The state-owned Al-Ekhbariya TV broadcast footage of what appeared to be explosions in the air over Riyadh. Social media users also posted videos, with some showing residents shrieking as they watched the fiery blast pierce the night sky, which appeared to be the kingdom’s U.S. Patriot missile batteries intercepting the ballistic missile.
Col. Turki al-Maliki, the spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said the Houthis were trying in “a systematic and deliberate way to target civilians.”
The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh issued a warning to Americans, calling on them to “stay alert in case of additional future attacks.” Flight-tracking websites showed a number of flights scheduled to land at Riyadh’s international airport diverted or delayed in the hour after the attack.
Iran Condemns US Airstrike On Iran-Backed Militia In Syria
Iran on Saturday condemned US air strikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria, and denied responsibility for rocket attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq that prompted Friday's strikes.
Washington said its strikes on positions of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah paramilitary group along the Iraq border were in response to the rocket attacks on US targets in Iraq.
Western officials and some Iraqi officials have blamed those attacks on Iran-backed groups.
However, Tehran has denied any involvement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Saturday condemned the U.S. strikes as "illegal and a violation of Syria's sovereignty" in a meeting with his visiting Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein, Iran's state media reported.
"Zarif said some recent attacks and incidents in Iraq are suspect, and could be designed to disrupt Iran-Iraq relations and Iraq's security and stability," the media reports said.
"We emphasize the need for the Iraqi government to find the perpetrators of these incidents," Zarif was quoted as saying.
Hussein gave assurances that "Baghdad will not allow incidents in this country to be used to disrupt the excellent relations between the two countries", state media reported.
Iran’s top security official, Ali Shamkhani, met Hussein earlier and said Friday's US airstrikes encouraged terrorism in the region.
Hussein is in Iran "to discuss regional developments, including ways to balance relations and avoid tension and escalation" with Iranian officials, according to an Iraqi foreign ministry statement.
Washington and Tehran are seeking maximum leverage in attempts to save Iran’s nuclear deal reached with world powers in 2015 but abandoned in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, after which regional tensions soared.
Israel Says Iran Might Be Behind Explosion On Israeli-Owned Ship
Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz said on Saturday his "initial assessment" was that Iran was responsible for an explosion on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman.
The ship, a vehicle-carrier named MV Helios Ray, suffered an explosion between Thursday and Friday morning. A US defense official in Washington said the blast left holes above the waterline in both sides of the hull. The cause was not immediately clear and no casualties were reported.
"Iran is looking to hit Israeli infrastructure and Israeli citizens," Gantz told the public broadcaster Kan. "The location of the ship in relative close proximity to Iran raises the notion, the assessment, that it is the Iranians."
"Right now, at an initial assessment level, given the proximity and the context - that is my assessment," Gantz said, adding a deeper investigation still had to be carried out.
There was no immediate comment from Iranian officials.
The ship is owned by a Tel Aviv company called Ray Shipping through a company registered in the Isle of Man, according to a U.N. shipping database.
Israeli Channel 13 News said defense officials believed the Iranian navy had launched a precision strike to avoid casualties, firing two missiles at a part of the ship that if damaged would not have sunk the vessel. It added an Israeli delegation was en route to Dubai, where the ship was docked, to investigate.
Reuters was not immediately able to confirm the report.
Iran said in November it would make a "calculated" response to the killing of its top nuclear scientist, which it blamed on Israel.
Washington has blamed Iran for a number of attacks on shipping in strategic Gulf waters, notably on four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, in May 2019. Iran has denied carrying out those attacks.
Report by Reuters
Islamic Republic Officials Contradict Each Other On New Strain Of Coronavirus
As the coronavirus continues to rapidly spread in the Khuzestan province, the Islamic Republic officials have made contradictory comments about the new strain of coronavirus in Iran.
MP Amir Hossein Hashemi, a member of the coronavirus taskforce said on Saturday that the Iranian mutated coronavirus must be added to the list of new strains in South Africa, the UK, and California.
He added that the matter has not been confirmed yet but there is evidence of it in Qazvin and those areas.
However, shortly after, the Ministry of Health Spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour rejected the claims about the mutated Iranian strain of the virus. He explained that since the beginning of the pandemic, over 70 mutations have been identified in Iran and none of them behave significantly differently, so describing them as a new strain is not correct.
Previously, President Hassan Rouhani had stated that this Persian new year (in March) will be more difficult than the last year, and the Minister of Health Saeed Namaki asked the hospitals to be ready for a “heavy storm”.
But the spokesperson for the coronavirus taskforce Alireza Raeesi previously said that all the new cases in Khuzestan province must be identified as the new UK strain. He went on to report that on Saturday 250 thousand Chinese vaccines will arrive in Iran. He expressed hope that the first priority group which consists of 1.3 million people will end mid-April.
Rights Defender Rejects Court Summons: ‘I Will Disobey By All Means’
Iranian human rights activist and anti-death-penalty activist Narges Mohammadi refused on Saturday to appear at court for a fresh case, which was opened against her when in prison before her release in October.
Mohammadi, a founder with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi of Human Rights Defenders Center in Iran, was arrested in 2016 and sentenced to 16 years in prison for “propaganda against the regime” and establishing the illegal group Legam, which campaigns against capital punishment. Mohammadi contracted Covid-19 in prison in July and alleged she was denied proper medical care.
The new charges against her came into play after her release from prison. Mohammadi’s letter published on Saturday stated that she had been twice summonsed to court in December but had refused to attend. A third summons called her to court on February 27 for a trial to begin.
Mohammadi has been accused of actions breaking prison regulations, including showing disrespect to prison officials, organizing gatherings of prisoners, and breaking windows.
Mohammadi, who was first arrested in 1998 and has served several prison terms, was awarded the Andrei Sakharov prize in 2018. She was defiant in her letter: “I will in no way participate in any part or stage of this trial and will not respect any court ruling issued and will disobey by all means.”
Narges Mohammadi, renowned campaigner against the death penalty
Protests Continue In South-East Iran As Prosecutors Threaten Tough Response
Baluch activists report continued sporadic protests in south-eastern Iran on Saturday [February 27] after at least ten people transporting fuel to Pakistan were killed by security forces on February 22, according to activists cited by Human Rights Watch.
Videos received by Iran International TV showed columns of anti-riot troops being dispatched to Sistan-Baluchestan province on Thursday and Friday, as the military prosecutor there threatened more arrests and prosecution of “armed hooligans” and “anti-revolutionaries.” While a policeman was reported killed on Thursday, these terms have also been applied to peaceful protesters. Activists have reported arrests as the government has cut off internet services to prevent news reaching the rest of the world and communication between protestors.
Abdolhamid Esmail-Zehi, Friday prayer leader in the provincial capital Zahedan and religious leader of the mainly Sunni Baluchis, has called for an independent and full investigation of the security forces’ role in the deaths of ‘fuel mules’ earlier in the week. Baluchi leaders and activists argue that ordinary people suffering from poverty resort to smuggling small quantities of fuel to Pakistan – where gasoline is more expensive than in Iran – to feed their families.
Authorities have acknowledged the death of three ‘fuel mules,’ while Mohammad-Hadi Marashi, Security Deputy of Sistan-Baluchestan governorate, suggested the firing had begun from the Pakistani side of the border. The province suffers from a lack of employment, drinking water and adequate school buildings. Sunnis allege they are discriminated against in government employment in favor of mainly Shia Sistanis. Opiate smuggling from Afghanistan and Pakistan has offered many a more lucrative income than farming.
Republicans Draft Bill Mandating Congressional Approval For Lifting Iran Sanctions
US Senate Republicans have drafted legislation that would prevent the Biden administration from lifting the sanctions imposed on Iran by the previous administration without the approval of Congress.
The Islamic Republic leaders have demanded the United States provide Iran with billions of dollars in sanctions relief and cash assets before the Islamic Republic decides to bring its growing nuclear program back in compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The new legislation would force the Biden administration go through Congress for any sanctions relief package, potentially complicating and delaying efforts by the White House to go around the Congress for negotiation with Tehran.
The legislation, filed Thursday and which Hagerty is calling the "Iran Sanctions Relief Review Act of 2021," is co-sponsored by 21 Republicans.
The bill is just the latest effort in a broadening campaign by Republican lawmakers to stop the Biden administration from rushing into a deal that a significant portion of congressional leaders oppose.
"The United States cannot fall victim again to Tehran’s blackmail, bribery, and extortion by giving in to its demands for sanctions relief," Hagerty said in a statement, describing the Biden administration's efforts to re-engage in diplomacy with Iran as "irresponsible and dangerous."
UN Human Rights Commission Accuses Iran Of Targeting Minorities
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Friday accused the Islamic Republic of “persistent impunity for human rights violations” against minorities in provinces such as Sistan-Baluchistan, mostly inhabited by the Sunni Muslims.
Bachelet claimed the Islamic Republic has been targeting minority groups in a “coordinated campaign” since December in provinces such as Sistan-Baluchistan, Khuzestan, and Kurdish areas in western Iran.
“Mass arrests and enforced disappearances have been reported, as well as increasing numbers of executions, following deeply flawed processes,” Bachelet said. “Across the country, the exercise of civic freedoms and political or critical expression continue to be targeted through national security laws, criminal prosecution and intimidation.”
Protests broke out in Sistan-Baluchistan province on February 23 after security forces allegedly shot people carrying small amounts of fuel to sell across the border in Pakistan at a border crossing near the city of Saravan.
The protests have continued for several days with security forces sending reinforcements from other parts of the country to suppress the protesters. Several people have been killed and many arrested. Videos received by Iran International TV show security forces being deployed to cities of the troubled Sistan-Baluchestan province on Thursday evening and Friday.
“I am concerned at persistent impunity for human rights violations, including violations that occurred in the contexts of protests in 2018 and 2019,” the UN Human Rights High Commissioner said.
Syria Condemns 'Cowardly' US Air Strikes On Iran-Backed Militias
BAGHDAD, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Syria said U.S. air strikes against Iranian-backed militias in the east of the country on Friday were a cowardly act and urged President Joe Biden not to follow "the law of the jungle".
An Iraqi militia official close to Iran said the strikes killed one fighter and wounded four, but U.S. officials said they were limited in scope to show Biden's administration will act firmly while trying to avoid a big regional escalation.
Washington and Tehran are seeking maximum leverage in attempts to save Iran's nuclear deal reached with world powers in 2015 but abandoned in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, after which regional tensions soared and fears of full-scale conflict grew.
"Syria condemns in the strongest terms the cowardly U.S. attack on areas in Deir al-Zor near the Syrian-Iraqi border," the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"It (the Biden administration) is supposed to stick to international legitimacy, not to the law of the jungle as (did) the previous administration."
The air strikes, early on Friday Middle Eastern time, targeted militia sites on the Syrian side of the Iraqi-Syrian frontier, where groups backed by Iran control an important crossing for weapons, personnel and goods.
Western officials and some Iraqi officials accuse Iranian-backed groups of involvement in deadly rocket attacks on U.S. sites and personnel in Iraq over the last month.
Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, also criticised the U.S. strikes and called for "unconditional respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria."
Explosion Hits Israeli Ship In Gulf Of Oman, Raising Suspicions Of Iranian Attack
An Israeli ship, the MV HELIOS RAY, has been struck by an explosion Friday near the strategic mouth of the Persian Gulf, American and British military officials said.
A US defense official said the blast left holes in both sides of the vessel's hull. The cause was not immediately clear.
The vehicle-carrier ship is owned by a Tel-Aviv based company called Ray Shipping through a company registered in the Isle of Man, according to a U.N. shipping database.
The unexplained blast comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US over Tehran's nuclear program. The site of the blast, the Gulf of Oman, saw a series of mine attacks against oil tankers in 2019 that the US Navy blamed on Iran, something Tehran denied.
The Bahamas-flagged ship was hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) and a maritime security firm said on Friday. UKMTO, which is run by the British navy, says the crew and the vessel is safe after the explosion.
President Joe Biden ordered a retaliatory airstrike Friday on positions of Iran-backed Iraqi militia forces in Syria after recent rocket attacks on US bases in Iraq.
While the circumstances of the explosion remain unclear, Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, said it was very possible the blast stemmed from "asymmetric activity by Iranian military," which it said would be "commensurate" with heightened regional tensions.
As Iran seeks to pressure the United States to lift sanctions and return to the 2015 atomic accord, the country may seek "to exercise forceful diplomacy through military means," the Dryad report said.
Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
Reporting by AP and Reuters
Young Political Prisoner Attempts Suicide In Iran After Being Told 'You Have No Rights'
A political prisoner in Iran who was arrested during the 2019 nationwide protests has been taken to hospital after an attempted suicide on February 24, a human rights group has announced.
Siamak Moghimi, 25, cut his wrist and abdomen in the Greater Tehran Penitentiary after the prison chief addressing the detainees of the November 2019 protests said, “You don’t have any rights”, HRANA, Human Rights Activists News Agency, an Iranian rights monitor based abroad reported, quoting its sources inside Iran.
There is no news about Moghimi's health condition in the hospital.
Nationwide anti-government protests erupted in Iran on November 15, 2019, after a sudden hike in state-controlled fuel prices, which quickly turned into a political uprising against the Islamic Republic. In less than a week, security forces killed hundreds of protesters and arrested 8,000. The faith of many prisoners is shrouded in secrecy. Those convicted were tried behind closed doors without due process of law.
Moghimi was sentenced to ten years in prison in early 2020 by a Revolutionary Court and must serve five years of his sentence. Revolutionary courts are a remnant of the post-revolution years in the 1980s when Islamists were purging the country of opponents.
Moghimi suffered from nervous breakdowns before his arrest and spent time in hospital. According to Iranian law, people with mental disorders are not held criminally responsible for their actions.