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Iran, USA and coronavirus

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The Covid-19 pandemic has covered 183 countries, afflicting more than 1.2 million people, killing more than 70 thousand and causing moral, psychological and material damage to almost all of humanity. Surprisingly, the coronavirus hit the developed countries the most. Although, it is possible that the tragic statistics on the number of infected and on the number of dead in these countries are the result of more accurate diagnosis of the disease.

Covid-19 has struck at different countries with different socio-political and financial and economic problems making these problems worse to an extent that they sent countries into crisis.

This fully applies to the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), which occupy the first and seventh places, respectively, in the number of people afflicted.

In Iran, coronavirus has aggravated the far from cloudless economic situation. The economic downturn, caused by poor management, tough US sanctions and a dramatic decline in global oil prices, had a negative effect on Iranians’ wellbeing, triggering a lot of discontent. According to the World Bank, recession during the Iranian year (03/21/19 – 03/20/20) may reach – minus 8.7% of GDP. Inflation is at 35.1%. Food prices in the past year have increased by 40%, commodity prices – by 28 – 40%. These are figures to be reckoned with.

Although the country’s leadership is fully aware of this, the ruling elite is clearly in a state of shock at the countless problems that have amassed, the main one being the coronavirus. Besides, the ruling elite is divided into “moderates” and “radicals”, each group having their own vision of a solution to these problems and of the future of the country as a whole. Covid-19, like a catalyst in chemical reactions, has made all the sore points more pronounced.

The appeal to Iranian people to join forces in the face of the coronavirus epidemic – which repeatedly came from the Ayatollahs – did not yield fruit. The Iranians who boycotted the elections to the Majlis on February 21 ( 57.4% of all voters) demonstrated their attitude to both “moderates” and “radicals.” They accuse the authorities of creating these problems (whether consciously or unconsciously no longer matters), of being unable to resolve them rationally, and finally, of the unprecedented Covid-19 attack on Iran. Mortality, that is, the percentage of deaths of the total number of those diagnosed with coronavirus, has amounted to nearly 6.4% (a seasonal flu has a mortality of 0.1% to 0.5%). Thus, the Iranians have lost much of their trust in the authorities.

An unbiased analysis of the situation in Iran demonstrates that the state system of deterrents and offsets, which was developed in previous years and which guaranteed stability for decades, is now cracking. The pervasive crisis that has covered Islamic Iran has both internal and external causes. The latter is attributed to the United States, which has been pursuing the policy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran.

The response policy of “maximum resistance”, announced by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, may be justified but is unlikely to become effective in the current financial, economic and socio-political conditions in Iran.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown global policy and economy into chaos. What  was relevant and important a couple of months ago has faded into the background. Last December and January marked the peak of the Iran-US confrontation. Now,  the situation has changed, dictating new approaches and new solutions.

Coronavirus is attacking Iran at a critical time for the country. Perhaps, it is this emergency situation, both for the IRI (almost 4 thousand dead) and for the USA (almost 9.5 thousand dead), when they are faced with a common deadly enemy, that must encourage them to bridge their differences, at least for the time being.

Covid-19 has made all Iranian problems worse, has revealed weaknesses in national health care and has covered the future of the Islamic Republic with a cloud of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Meanwhile, the United States, the victim of pandemic number 1, was finally able to see that the strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran has failed. Trump did not manage to force the Iranians to sit at the negotiating table, nor did he manage to get them to change the regime or even soften it.

Even before Covid-19, the Iran-USA confrontation hit a stalemate: Tehran will not force Trump to reconsider its anti-Iranian strategy, Washington will not force Ayatollah Khamenei and the country’s leadership to comply with American requirements.

What is needed given the situation is a new “coronavirus diplomacy” which could focus on the so-called “small things”. The effects of these “small things” for tens, hundreds and thousands of people are far from small.

Iran could release all foreign nationals and people with dual citizenship from places of detention, suspend the process of phased non-compliance with the requirements of the nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Action Plan – JCPOA), and cut down on its military operations in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Syria, Yemen.

The United States could take steps to reduce the scope of its inhumane measures and, as a result, ease the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for Iran. Of course, the reality is that President Trump, unfortunately, will not abolish anti-Iranian sanctions, in the  first place, because of the upcoming presidential election in the United States and because of the political philosophy of Trump. However, there is a number of measures that Washington can take:

To expand and determine the range of humanitarian (medical, food) products for Iran.

To give it to understand that not a single deal on these products with Iran will come under sanctions.

To assist the World Health Organization and the Red Cross in providing the logistics and delivery of these goods to Iran.

Not to prevent the opening of frozen Iranian accounts in foreign banks for the purchase of humanitarian supplies. If necessary, to carry out all transactions through Switzerland to ensure that it is used solely for the purchase of medicines, medical equipment and essential food products.

Not to obstruct the request of the Central Bank of Iran to the IMF for a $ 5 billion loan. After all, this money can go through Swiss channels.

Of course, these are options for mutual measures alone which, although do nothing  to solve the Iranian-American conflict, could nevertheless create the possibility of unblocking diplomacy in the face of a dangerous disease for future post-pandemic contacts.

Unfortunately, these are all but good wishes. It would be desirable to see them through, but how realistic is it?

According to media reports, tensions between Iran and the United States regarding Iraq have been building up in recent days. Thus, Iran-backed Iraqi groups Kataib Hezbollah, Hashd al-Shaabi, Asbat al-Tiran and others have announced readiness to continue attacks on US military facilities until the Americans leave Iraq.

 Donald Trump was quick to retort that Iran, as the initiator of such attacks, would pay a high price for attacking the US military in Iraq and that the US would strike back at Iranian forces.

According to The New York Times (03/27/2020), the Pentagon ordered the Central Command of the US Armed Forces (CENTCOM) to design a plan to eliminate local pro-Iranian militias in case of attacks on the US military in Iraq. Under a secret instruction, the IRGC troops may also become the target of possible US attacks in case they find themselves in close proximity to Shiite militants.

Simultaneously, the Americans have been strengthening air defenses in Iraq. After a series of intensive consultations with Iraqis, they began deploying Patriot missile defense systems in Iraq. One of the deployment locations is the Ain al-Assad base in western Iraq, which came under an attack from Iran earlier this year. One battery has arrived at the Harir base in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, while two more Patriot batteries are being transferred from Kuwait to Iraq.

In its statement of  April 1 the Iranian Foreign Ministry said that US operations in Iraq would lead to “catastrophic consequences” for the Americans in the first place. Tehran went further than statements. The country’s air defense forces and the IRGC missile forces were put on alert. The Iranian military command deployed dozens of anti-aircraft missile systems and coastal missile systems along the entire coastline of the Hormuz Strait, threatening to block the passage of any ships through the Strait of Hormuz. This usual tactic, carried out by Iran several times over the past decade, has repeatedly led to an accute aggravation of the situation around Iran and in the Persian Gulf.

It looks like even in the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tehran and Washington cannot give up on their phobias and mutual hatred.

What is encouraging is that both capitals have no consensus as to the issue of using force to settle the Iranian-American conflict. In particular, as The New York Times reports, Pentagon chief Mark Esper and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, Mark Milli, adhere to a cautious approach, fearing further destabilization in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Esper has ordered his staff to devise a strategy in case of escalation of attacks against the US military in Iraq.

According to Radio Farda (04/04/2020), one of the most influential Iranian politicians, deputy of the Majlis (parliament) of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, who advocates radical conservative views, said that Iran and America were close to war. However, such a war will become “unfair” on both sides. At the end of December, H. Falahatpisheh called on the Iranian military and political leadership to “keep away from a conflict with the United States in Iraq.”

That Iran-US relations have reached a critical point is obvious. But crisis in Greek means a turning point, a condition under which the existing means of achieving goals become inadequate but there emerge new opportunities. Maybe, this moment has come!? Let’s hope that amid the global onslaught of coronavirus reason and pragmatism will prevail, opening new opportunities for dialogue and will thereby lead  Iran and the United States to soften their approach in relation to each other.

From our partner International Affairs

Senior research assistant at RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, candidate of historical sciences

Middle East

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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