Iran's Khamenei cancels Persian new year speech due to virus: office

Tehran (AFP) –


Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has cancelled an annual speech marking the start of the Persian new year, his office announced Monday, as the country's death toll from novel coronavirus mounts.

"The ceremony of the speech of the supreme leader, which takes place every year at the sacred mausoleum of Imam Reza... will not take place this year" and Khamenei will not travel to the city of Mashhad, the statement said.

With a death toll of 237 as of Monday, Iran is one of the worst hit countries, after China and Italy.

The speech given by the supreme leader in Mashhad each year usually sets out the country's key objectives for the 12 months to come.

The statement added that the decision to cancel this year was taken "due to the spread of the coronavirus and the strict advice of medical and health experts and officials to avoid gatherings and travel... to slow the spread of the illness".

Mashhad is a key Shiite holy city. It is also Khamenei's birthplace and the capital of the Khorasan Razavi province.

According to the most recent health ministry figures, 183 people have been infected by the virus in the province.

There are currently over 7,000 confirmed cases in Iran spread across all 31 of the country's provinces.

The Persian new year -- to be celebrated this year on March 20 -- is often a time when people travel and visit family.

But in light of the spread of coronavirus, several provinces have issued orders to close hotels and other tourist accommodation to discourage people from travelling.

The government has been scrambling to contain the virus since it reported its first cases in mid-February, shutting down schools and universities as well as urging Iranians to stay at home.