Iran's supreme leader refused U.S. assistance Sunday to fight the new coronavirus, citing an unfounded conspiracy theory claiming the virus could be man-made by America. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments come as Iran faces crushing U.S. sanctions blocking the country from selling its crude oil and accessing international financial markets. But while Iranian civilian officials in recent days have increasingly criticized those sanctions, 80-year-old Khamenei instead chose to traffic in the same conspiracy theory increasingly used by Chinese officials about the new virus to deflect blame for the pandemic.
The United States should lift sanctions if Washington wants to help Iran to contain the coronavirus outbreak, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday, adding that Iran had no intention of accepting Washington's offer of humanitarian assistance. "American leaders are lying ... If they want to help Iran, all they need to do is to lift sanctions .... Then we can deal with the coronavirus outbreak," Rouhani said in a televised speech.
The Trump administration on Sunday harshly criticized France for releasing an Iranian man wanted for prosecution by the United States in an apparent prisoner swap with Iran. The State Department said it "deeply regrets" the "unilateral" French decision to release Jalal Rohollahnejad, who was the subject of a U.S. extradition request on charges of violating American sanctions on Iran. Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that France had failed to uphold its obligations under a joint extradition treaty and harmed the cause of justice. Rohollahnejad was released from French custody on Friday in an apparent swap for French researcher Roland Marchal who had been detained in Iran for more than eight months on charges of violating state security laws.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani says a "counter-revolutionary conspiracy" has been hatched to "suspend work and economic activity" amid the coronavirus epidemic in Iran and it should be countered by "normalizing production." He made the statement on Saturday March 21 at a meeting of the Coronavirus Control Task Force which is the body that decided to shut down schools and limit social activity in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did something unusual last week. In an open letter to the American people, he appealed to their conscience to end the sanctions against his country. The context, of course, was the coronavirus. The pandemic has closed schools, canceled public ceremonies and suspended businesses, he wrote, and yet the sanctions on Iran remain. "Can the American people accept that these malicious pressures are brought to bear on the Iranian people in their name, as a result of their vote, and by the means of their taxes?" he asked.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Iran has released the French academic Roland Marchal, an official in the French president's office said on Saturday, as part of a prisoner swap agreement with France. Mr. Marchal, who had been imprisoned in Iran since June on security charges, was due to arrive in France around midday Saturday, the official said. Iran and France had agreed to swap Mr. Marchal and Jalal Ruhollahnejad, an Iranian engineer detained by the French authorities over accusations that he violated U.S. sanctions against Tehran, Iranian state media reported on Friday.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
President Trump was getting ready to declare the coronavirus a "national emergency," but inside the White House last Thursday, a tense debate erupted among the president and his top advisers on a far different subject: whether the United States should escalate military action against Iran, a longtime American rival that has been devastated by the epidemic.
The offer by the United States to help Iran fight the coronavirus pandemic is strange, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday. "Several times Americans have offered to help Iran to contain the virus. Aside from the fact that there are suspicions about this virus being created by America ... their offer is strange since they face shortages in their fight against the virus," said Khamenei in a televised speech. "Iran has the capability to overcome any kind of crisis including coronavirus outbreak."
The Islamic Republic Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has dismissed Washington's offer to help Tehran contain the deadly novel coronavirus as "hypocritical," maintaining that Tehran has enough friends across the world, and the only thing the U.S. should do is not impede the flow of assistance to Iran. Speaking to the Brazilian daily newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, Zarif reiterated, "We will take care of ourselves and have enough friends to contribute to Iran's relentless campaign against the pandemic", advising the U.S. to "stop economic terrorism."
The United States is expanding its maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Earlier this month, a senior State Department official announced what he termed a "super maximum economic pressure campaign," which would advocate new due diligence measures on maritime shipping and punish the storage of Iranian oil. These steps constitute a vital way to prevent Iranian sanctions evasion, which aimed to blunt the impact of Washington's pressure policy. They also come during a time of intense uncertainty in Iran, as the regime continues to try to cover up the extent of the Coronavirus outbreak in the country.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
Iran's passive response in battling the coronavirus at home has helped spread the virus in the Middle East, experts say. Iran, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Middle East, reported the first case in the country February 19 in the shrine city of Qom, nearly 140 kilometers south of the capital, Tehran. As of March 20, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported 19,644 confirmed cases with at least 1,433 deaths. Iranian officials initially downplayed the spread of the virus as the country was heading into its parliamentary election. This caused a wider spread of the coronavirus, experts said.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran's death toll from the new coronavirus has increased to 1,812, with 127 new deaths in the past 24 hours, a health ministry spokesman told state TV on Monday, adding that the country's total number of infected people has reached 23,049. Kianush Jahanpur said that in the past 24 hours, some 1,411 Iranians had been infected with the virus across the Islamic Republic, which has the worst outbreak in the Middle East.
Deputy Governor of Tehran Province has announced that all commercial establishments must stay closed from Sunday, March 22, except for chain supermarkets and pharmacies. Meanwhile, a health official in Tehran said there has been a five percent spike in visits of people infected with coronavirus to hospitals in Iran's capital. Hamidreza Goudarzi, deputy governor was quoted by IRNA as saying, the order to keep businesses closed has been issued to all officials who have a duty to enforce the decision.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
The United States on Sunday criticized France's decision to release from its custody an Iranian engineer facing U.S. charges of attempting to illegally import U.S. technology for military purposes on behalf of an Iranian company. The U.S. State Department said in a statement that Iranian national Jalal Rohollahnejad was the subject of a U.S. extradition request, adding that "it is regrettable in this instance that France failed to uphold its treaty obligations and prevented justice from being pursued."