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Iran: Coronavirus, economy and politics

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The coronavirus known under the official name of Covid-19 has been raging across Europe for nearly four months. The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced a pandemic.

According to data on the morning of March 16, the total number of Covid-19 infections in 146 countries amounted to 162687 people, 76% of which registered in four countries – China, Italy, South Korea and Iran. According to the latest data from the Iranian Ministry of Health, on March 16, the number of coronavirus infections in the country reached almost 14,000 people, 4,590 of whom recovered. The death toll amounted to 724 people.

Here are charts that demonstrate the situation for 14 – 15 March.

Mortality rate from coronavirus per 1 mln. for 14 March 2020.

Country Number of deaths per 1 mln. residents
1 San-Marino 147.3
2 Italy 23.8
3 Iran 7.3
4 Spain 4.1
5 China 2.2
6 Luxemurg 1.6
7 Switzerland 1.5
8 Korea, Republic 1.4
9 Guyana 1.3
10 France 1.2
11 World 0.7

The mortality rate among those diagnosed with coronavirus varies widely. If we consider countries with the number of 15 cases or more, mortality rate as of March 14, 2020, range from 0.1% in Norway to 9.9% in Iraq. In comparison, a seasonal flu usually kills less than 1% of those infected.

Mortality rate in percentage points among those infected for 14 March 2020.

Country Mortality (% of deaths in relation to infected) Number of infected (official reports)
1 Iraq 9.90 101
2 Philippines 8.16 98
3 Algeria 8.11 37
4 Italy 6.81 21 157
5 Azerbaijan 6.67 15
6 Argentina 6.45 31
7 Bulgaria 6.45 31
8 San Marino 6.25 80
9 Ecuador 5.88 17
10 Indonesia 5.21 96
11  Iran 5.20 13 938
12  China 3.80 8 1003
13  World 3.72 16 2687
14  All countries except China 3.65 81 684

Iran is among the main victims to Covid-19. Of course, not being an epidemiologist, an infectious disease specialist, a virologist, a bacteriologist, a specialist in the field of sanitation, it is difficult to ascertain why some countries are more exposed to coronavirus, others less, regardless of geographical location or distance from the original source of the epidemic – in this case, China.

Iran demonstrates a very high mortality rate from this virus – 5.2%. Another feature of the pandemic in Iran is that many government officials have succumbed to it. According to Iranian MP Abdulrez Mesri, at least 23 deputies of the Majlis have been infected with Covid-19. The first Vice President of Iran, Eskhak Jahangiri, Iranian Vice President Masume Ebtekar, Ali Akbar Velayati – adviser to the spiritual leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mohammad Sadr, member of the Council for determining the appropriateness of decisions,  Minister of Tourism, Cultural Heritage and Crafts Ali Asgar Munesan, Minister of Commerce, Industry and Mines Reza Rahmani. In addition to them, among the afflicted is Deputy Minister of Health, who led the government coronavirus group, Iraj Harirchi, and the head of the emergency medical service, Pirhossein Kulivand.

Perhaps no other country has reported so many fatalities from Covid-19 among senior officials and politicians as Iran. In the weeks during which the coronavirus raged in Iran, it unfortunately took the lives of such statesmen as: member of the Council on Expediency Mohammad Mirmohammadi, former Iranian Ambassador to the Vatican and Deputy of the Mfjlis Hadi Khosroshahi, former Iranian Ambassador to Syria and adviser to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Hossein Sheikh al-Eslam, former adviser to the head of the Foreign Ministry, Ahmad Toiserkani – adviser to the head of the judiciary of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, Farzad Tazari – deputy head of the political affairs department of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), General IRGC Nasser Shaabani, who served in the Corps for 37 years, Mohammad Khoja Abolkasemi – an important person in the intelligence and power circles, Mohammad Reza Rahchamani – a prominent politician of the liberal reform wing, Fateme Rahbar, a radically conservative woman politician who was re-elected to the Majlis in the February 21 elections, Mohammad Ali Ramezani, who was also re-elected to the new parliament. In addition, in recent days, three high-ranking officers of the IRGC died from coronavirus in Iran.

The coronavirus epidemic began in Iran in late January – early February. The epicenter of the epidemic was the holy city of Qum – the ideological capital and spiritual center of Shiite Muslims around the world, “the nest of the Prophet and his family,” as believers say. Why, – many observers and political scientists are wondering. After all, Qum is not a multi-million-dollar capital like Tehran, where life buzzes churning a myriad of visitors from different countries thereby contributing to the fast spread of the virus. Qum is not the most popular tourist center in Iran – it is located in a desert, it is populated mostly by Shiite clerics, or Shiite supporters, and it has a variety of religious communities with their own customs and traditions. However, Qum is a popular destination for Shiite pilgrims from all over the world.

Political analysts tend to believe that Qum became the center of Covid-19 epidemic because it has a fairly large concentration of Chinese per area. One of Iran’s major spiritual and educational centers – International University “Al-Mustafa” – has more than 40,000 undergraduates, more than 700 of them come  from China.

Significantly, there are about 40 million Muslims in China, about four million of them are Shiites (mainly Ismaelites). Tehran, without encroaching upon the sovereignty of China, has been pursuing a cautious purpose-oriented policy among the Chinese Muslims, creating an Iran-friendly public environment, including through holding religious and ideological training in Islamic centers in Qum. Some Chinese nationals return home as pro-Iranian missionaries.

What is interesting to learn is that in 2014  Qum’s religious centers began to teach Chinese and Chinese language programs were introduced in seminaries in Esfahan and other cities.

Speaking about the rising number of Chinese in Iran we must remember that trade and economic relations between the two countries have been developing at fast pace despite the US sanctions.  According to the results of the year 2018, trade between Beijing and Tehran increased by 12% to 42 billion dollars.

In September 2019 Iran and China signed a package of agreements which envisages China’s 400 billion dollar worth investments in Iranian economy within the next 25 years. Namely: 280 billion will go to the oil, gas and  petrochemical industries of Iran, another 120 billion will be channeled to upgrade the transport and production infrastructure in Iran. Given that plans to modernize the infrastructure and industrial facilities in Iran fully match the Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative, the loan program and the construction project went into operation and Chinese experts headed to Iran.

The agreement signed provides for the deployment of up to 5,000 Chinese security employees in Iran in order to protect Chinese projects. In addition, according to Iranian sources, the parties concerned are looking into the possibility of attracting extra forces for the protection of transit supplies of oil and gas to China via the  Persian Gulf.

China is skillfully finding its way into Iranian business. In the conditions of anti-Iranian sanctions China occupies niches vacated by US-dependent companies and businesses. (This was the case during the 2012-2015 sanction period, this is the case now). The Chinese privately run small and medium-sized businesses have been  particularly active.

Chairman of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Massoud Khansari underscored as he visited Beijing in November 2019 that private sector plays a great role in the development of economic ties between the two countries. Interestingly, the cooperation agreement was signed between the Iranian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the private sector of China and Iranians living in the north of China.

Overall, hundreds of Chinese companies and organizations employing thousands of Chinese nationals are operating in Iran. Chinese businessmen are present in Qum too.

Although the presence of Chinese (as we now know, they are potential coronavirus carriers) in Iran was not the only cause of such a fast spread  of the disease, but on February 19, two days before the Iranian government announced a coronavirus epidemic, a businessman who had returned from China died in Qum.

Several factors contributed to Iran turning into one of the Covid-19 epidemic centers.

Firstly, the Iranian authorities delayed the official announcement of the epidemic for fear of a low turnout at the February 21 Majlis elections, even though every day, every hour the disease claimed more victims.

Secondly, Qum’s clergy came out against medical recommendations issued by the Ministry of Health, including introduction of quarantine, in a belief that “the invisible hand of the enemy was behind the emergency recommendations from health officials”.

The Mullahs insisted that the holy city of Qum was immune to all disease. They urged residents to visit the local shrine – Fatima Masumeh sepulcher – to pray for the sick in order to secure a miraculous recovery for themselves. 

When the officials suggested quarantine for the Fatima Masumeh mosque, Khamenei’s chief representative in Qum Mohammad Saidi agreed with the majority of the Qum clergy that the mosque should not be closed. Mohammad Saidi announced on February 22 that “no one would let the enemy portray Qum as a dangerous place; that defeat of Qum was the dream of crafty Trump and his  mercenaries but that dream would never come true, even in their graves”….

The same scenario was observed nearly all over the country. Thousands of believers gathered in mosques to pray for health. This led to a dramatic increase in the number of people infected and considerable delays in taking anti-virus measures.

Thirdly, the political situation in Iran of late has been tense. The epidemic struck Iran right after a number of crisis events: mass protests against rising petrol prices in November 2019 which transformed from economic to political; the killing of General Soleimani and the aggravation of Iranian-American relations; the mistaken shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner with Iranian nationals on board. This distrust in the authorities on the part of the public led to people ignoring the recommendations of health officials in the first weeks of the epidemic. This had a negative effect on the anti-virus effort as well.

Fourthly, the healthcare system in Iran, even though it has been progressing in recent years, is far from the level needed to address a pandemic. Though, in general, the health service in the country is better and much more effective than in most countries of the Middle East.

Undoubtedly, what delayed the modernization of Iranian healthcare system was austere international sanctions which were imposed against  Iran in 2012-2016, and  the US sanctions introduced in 2018. Iran was de facto deprived of the opportunity to purchase modern medical equipment, medicaments, research materials and other kinds of medical and sanitation produce in required quantities. All this is the result of the restriction of trade with Iran and a fall in Iranian incomes.

However, despite the difficulties, Iran has achieved impressive progress in biotechnology, which will likely serve as a scientific foundation for a decisive attack on Covid-19.

Here is a comparative analysis of the healthcare status in different countries. The table is based on information from the Knoema website (https://knoema.ru/atlas/). The data is for 2015 – 2018 

Country Spending on healthcare
 % to GDP
Spending on healthcare per capita ($) Number of doctors per  1000 residents Number of beds per 1000 residents
Iran 8.1 415 1,1 1,5
Russia 5.3 469 4,0 8,2
Germany   8,2 4714 4,2 8,3
Israel 7,3 2837 3,2 3,1
USA 17,1 9870 2,6 2,9

Having evaluated the situation and the scope of the epidemic with concern, the Iranian authorities stepped up effort to mobilize the population to combat the coronavirus.

On March 3, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei called on citizens to step up the fight against coronavirus across the country. He also urged Iranians to “follow directives and guidelines issued by health officials.”

Emphasizing that the population should heed the recommendations of health officials regarding coronavirus control and its non-proliferation, Ayatollah Khamenei added: “These recommendations should not be ignored, because God obliged us to answer for our health and the health of others. Therefore, all steps that contribute to improving the health of society and lead to non-proliferation of this disease is the right act, whereas what contributes to its spread is the wrong act. ”

A little later, the Supreme Leader described what was happening in the country as a disaster adding that though the IRI knew much more serious troubles, it no case should play down the danger.

In turn, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on March 4 that the authorities will try to overcome the coronavirus crisis in the shortest possible time and with minimal losses. He acknowledged that the Covid-19 affected almost all the provinces of Iran.

In accordance with instruction by the authorities, the National Headquarters for the Control of Coronavirus and Disease Prevention was set up, headed by the Minister of Health.

Involved in the anti-virus effort is the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Army’s ground forces. Rear Admiral Ali Fadawi, deputy commander of the IRGC, said that the Corps has established a permanent center, Shafa, to combat the coronavirus infection. The IRGC base is working in cooperation with the “National Headquarters for Control of Coronavirus and Disease Prevention.”

Corps spokesman General Ramezan Sharif said the IRGC had mobilized 100,000 of its members, as well as the Basij Resistance Force (IRGC), to help the government and people to stop the epidemic.

“The extensive IRGC system, including personnel and special-purpose facilities, as well as stationary and field hospitals, care camps, medical centers, and basic necessities and sanitary equipment, which belong to the IRGC and Basij, are available for the specific conditions of the country in the fight against coronavirus” “General Sharif said.

General Behzad Moamen, who is in charge of the Iranian Army’s medical department, said all 28 military field hospitals are ready to assist the Iranian Ministry of Health in treating patients diagnosed with Covid-19.

Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, said on March 13 that the Committee on Security and Law Enforcement, in tandem with the Ministry of the Interior and the governors, would begin to take measures to clear shops, streets and avenues from visitors and passers-by in order to preclude crowding. He added that over the next 10 days, the condition of all Iranian citizens will be checked via the Internet, by telephone and, if necessary, in person.

Iran’s Health Minister Said Namaki announced in early March that a new national mobilization plan will be in effect across the country to combat the coronavirus epidemic and better treat patients. The plan envisages special training for all 17,000 medical centers and 9,000 medical and clinical centers in all cities, suburban areas and villages. The number of medical laboratories for testing coronavirus infection has already reached 22, and will increase to 40 in the near future. Also, the plan provides for the widespread introduction of home quarantine.

The government has imposed restrictions on travel within the country, especially to the north of Iran, which is part of the red zone. The country has also adopted stringent digital medical control procedures at airports and transport terminals to detect possible infections. Air traffic with epidemic epicenters inside the country and abroad has been suspended.

The authorities have launched decisive action. Disinfection  vehicles have appeared in the streets of Tehran, spraying disinfectants, public transport is   disinfected on a regular basis.

All schools, universities, theaters, cinemas, and Shiite shrines are closed. Mass events, including Friday prayers, have been canceled. Where possible, quarantine is in effect. All resorts are under quarantine. Institutions have switched to on-line work. Internet traffic is up 40% as Iranians work from home. Shopping centers stand  nearly empty.

The head of the Iranian judiciary, Khojatoleslam Ebragim Raisi, said that about 70,000 prisoners across the country have gone on leave after the outbreak of coronavirus.

There are special matchsticks next to ATMs and elevator doors, offering Iranians the option to press buttons without touching the metal surfaces which are potentially infected with coronavirus. In public, some men no longer shake hands and do not kiss in greeting – instead, they touch each other with their boots.

The second round of parliamentary elections in Iran, scheduled for April 17, has been postponed on account of the epidemic. The celebration of Nourouz – the Iranian New Year, which begins on March 21, is under question. In Iran, the New Year holiday lasts until the beginning of April.

Slowly, the Iranians are coming to terms with the situation. There is no shortage of essential goods, daily use products and food.

However, the emergency measures caused by the epidemic have had a negative effect on the economy and, accordingly, on the social sphere. In the first two weeks of the coronavirus crisis, the Tehran Stock Exchange collapsed by 3.44%, while the national currency, which had already suffered significantly at the sanctions, fell by 19%.

According to the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, daily losses from the closure of enterprises and large commercial facilities throughout the country amount to $ 164 million. In addition, there have been cases of bankruptcy of small shops, cafes, hairdressers, car service stations, and taxi drivers.

Undoubtedly, the forced closure of land and air borders with neighbors and partners has struck an extra blow on the Iranian economy, tightening the blockade that the United States imposed in 2018.

Iran has found itself in plight. The American sanctions, a dramatic decrease in oil prices on the world market, the detrimental effect of the coronavirus epidemic  on the physical and psychological health of people, and also on the economy, amid the difficult political situation in the country, may herald grave socio-political upheavals.

From our partner International Affairs

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Turkey’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Artsakh

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The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently hosted a conference on international religious freedom and peace with the blessings of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founding president of the Walk of Truth, was one of the invited guests. She spoke about genocide and her own experience in Cyprus, warning of Turkey’s religious freedom violations. Hadjitofi also called for joint legal actions against continued ethnic cleansing and destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and other places by the Turkish government and its regional allies including Azerbaijan.

During the two-day conference, access to places of worship in war and conflict zones, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, and preservation of cultural heritage were among the topics addressed by many distinguished speakers.  The conference paid particular attention to the situation of historic Armenian monasteries, churches, monuments, and archeological sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that have been under Azeri occupation since the 2020 violent war unleashed by Azerbaijan.

Hadjitofi presented about the situation of Cyprus, sharing her recent visit to the Cypriot city of Famagusta (Varoshia), making historic parallels between the de-Christianisation of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, and its allies such as Azerbaijan. See Hadjitofi’s full speech here.

Author of the book, The Icon Hunter, Hadjitofi spoke with passion about her recent visit to the ghost city of Famagusta, occupied by Turkey since 1974. Her visit coincided with the 47th anniversary of the occupation. She was accompanied by journalist Tim Neshintov of Spiegel and photographer Julien Busch as she made several attempts to visit her home and pray at her church of Timios Stavrou (Holy Cross).

Hadjitofi explained how her own human rights and religious freedoms, alongside the rights of tens of thousands of Cypriots, were violated when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan illegally entered her country and prayed at the newly erected mosque in her own occupied town whereas she was kneeling down in the street to pray to her icon in front of her violated Christian church. In comparison, her church was looted, mistreated and vandalized by the occupying forces.  

Hadjitofi reminded the audience of the historic facts concerning Turks discriminating against Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. They also massacred these communities or expelled them from the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey, a process of widespread persecution which culminated in the 1913-23 Christian genocide. Hadjitofi then linked those genocidal actions with what Erdogan is doing today to the Kurds in Syria, and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Turkey’s wealthy friends such as the government of Azerbaijan.  She also noted that during her recent visit to her hometown of Famagusta, a delegation from Azerbaijan referred to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus as “Turkish land” and a “part of Greater Turkey”. This is yet another sign of Turkish-Azeri historic revisionism, and their relentless efforts for the Turkification of non-Turkish geography.

Hadjitofi called for a series of legal actions against Turkey and its allies, reminding Armenians that although they signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), they have not ratified it. She noted that it must be the priority of Armenians if they want to seek justice. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, neither signed or ratified the Rome Statute.

During her speech Hadjitofi also emphasized the need for unity amongst all Christians and other faiths against any evil or criminal act of destroying places of worship or evidence of their historical existence anywhere in the world. 

In line with this call, the Republic of Armenia instituted proceedings against the Republic of Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

In its application, Armenia stated that “[f]or decades, Azerbaijan has subjected Armenians to racial discrimination” and that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture and other abuse”.

Hadjitofi said that “Armenia’s lawsuit against the government of Azerbaijan is a positive move in the right direction and more legal actions should be taken against governments that systematically violate human rights and cultural heritage. I’m also in the process of meeting members of the Armenian diaspora in Athens, London, and Nicosia to discuss further joint legal actions. But the most urgent action that Armenia should take is the ratification of Rome Statute of the ICC,” she added.

Other speakers at the conference included representatives of the main Christian denominations, renowned scholars and experts from around the globe, all of whom discussed issues related to international religious freedom and the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage.

Baroness Cox, a Member of the UK House of Lords and a prominent human rights advocate, was among the participants. She has actively defended the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through her parliamentary, charity and advocacy work.

Meanwhile, the organizing committee of the conference adopted a joint communiqué, saying, in part:

” We re-affirm the principles of the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international and regional human rights treaties. We claim this right, equally, for all people, of any faith or none, and regardless of nation, history or political circumstances – including for those Armenian prisoners of war still illegally held in captivity by Azerbaijan, for whose swift release and repatriation we appeal and pray, and for the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh whose rights to free and peaceful assembly and association necessarily implicate the sacred character of human life.”

On September 11, the delegates of the conference were received by the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, in his palace in Yerevan where they were thanked. The guests also visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial-Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), where Hadjitofi was interviewed on Armenian national TV. She said:

“I read about the Armenian Genocide and I am glad that more countries recognize it as such but I am disappointed that politicians do not condemn actions of Turkey and its allies in their anti Christian attitude towards Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh. I see an interconnection between the genocide and the adopted politics of Azerbaijan, when the ethnic cleansing takes place, when cultural heritage is destroyed, gradually the traces of the people once living there are eliminated and that is genocide”. 

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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