Sanctions-hit Iran gambles on partial Covid-19 lockdown exit

Iranian officials have argued the economy must start reopening if it is to survive diminishing oil and tax revenues coupled with US sanctions.
Iranian officials have argued the economy must start reopening if it is to survive diminishing oil and tax revenues coupled with US sanctions. ATTA KENARE AFP

Iran allowed some businesses in the capital, Tehran, and nearby towns to re-open Saturday after weeks of lockdown aimed at containing the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.


Iran was slow to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and held off on imposing widespread restrictions even after other countries in the region with far fewer cases forced most businesses to close. Iran has reported more than 80,000 confirmed cases and over 5,000 deaths. 

The partial re-opening saw government offices working with a third of employees working from home. Schools, universities, restaurants, gyms and shopping malls as well as Tehran's grand bazaar remain closed.

Traffic was heavy in Tehran early Saturday, the first day of the work week. Authorities allowed businesses outside the capital to reopen a week ago.

While the coronavirus is highly contagious, Iran's leaders say they have to consider the economic consequences of quarantine measures, as the country struggles under severe sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. 

“It’s a difficult decision, it’s a controversial decision, but clearly the Iranian government is going through with it,” said Reza Sayah, reporting for FRANCE 24 from Tehran.

“For the past couple of weeks, the daily Covid-19 death toll here in Iran has gone down and last week, for the first time, the daily death toll went from triple digits to double digits. Critics of the government have always been sceptical of how accurate these numbers are, but the government is pointing to these statistics and suggest they are close to turning the corner in the fight against this outbreak,” explained Sayah.


UN calls for release of political prisoners

On Friday, UN human rights experts called on Iran to release political prisoners who could be vulnerable to infection inside the country's detention facilities. Iran has temporarily released 100,000 prisoners, but is still detaining many convicted on security charges, including several dual-nationals.

Rights groups say many of the dual-nationals are political prisoners or are being held as bargaining chips for future negotiations with the West.

“We recognise the emergency situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the problems it faces in fighting the pandemic, including reported challenges in accessing medical supplies due to sanctions,” the UN experts said. “Some are at great risk from Covid-19 due to their age or underlying health conditions. We call on the authorities to immediately release them.”

The experts highlighted the cases of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and defenders Narges Mohammadi and Arash Sadeghi, as well as dual nationals Ahmadreza Djalali , an Iranian-Swedish national; Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-British-American national; and Kamran Ghaderi and Massud Mossaheb, two Iranian-Austrian nationals. 

They said all seven have requested temporary release but have been rejected or not received a response.

Last month, Iran released leading French academic Roland Marchal, an Africa expert who was arrested with his partner in Iran in June 2019. 

In an interview with FRANCE 24 after his release, Marchal said that while he was in an Iranian prison, he realised he was "just a bargaining chip".

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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