Iranian president rejects criticism of coronavirus response

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the government was ‘straightforward’ with the nation, saying it announced the coronavirus outbreak as soon as it learned about it on February 19. (Office of the Iranian Presidency via AP)
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Updated 18 March 2020

Iranian president rejects criticism of coronavirus response

  • Iran has been the hardest hit country in the region, with nearly 1,000 dead
  • Iranian leadership said that ‘millions’ could die if people keep traveling and ignore health guidance

TEHRAN: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday defended his government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in the face of widespread criticism that officials acted too slowly and may have even covered up initial cases before infections rapidly spread across the country.
Iran has been the hardest hit country in the region, with nearly 1,000 dead and roughly 90 percent of the over 18,000 confirmed cases of the virus in the Middle East. Its leadership announced Tuesday that “millions” could die in the Islamic Republic if people keep traveling and ignore health guidance.
In a speech to his Cabinet, Rouhani said the government was “straightforward” with the nation, saying it announced the outbreak as soon as it learned about it on Feb. 19.
“We spoke to people in an honest way. We had no delay,” he added.
The government has come under heavy criticism for what has been seen as a slow and inadequate response. For weeks, government officials implored clerics to shut down crowded holy shrines to stymie the spread of the virus. The government finally closed the shrines this week.
“It was difficult of course to shut down mosques and holy sites, but we did it. It was a religious duty to do it,” Rouhani said.
The outbreak has cast a shadow over the Persian New Year, Nowruz, a normally joyous holiday that begins on Friday. Health officials have urged the public to avoid travel and crowded places. But many seem to be ignoring the warnings, raising the risk of further outbreaks.
Some food markets in the capital, Tehran, were still packed on Wednesday, and highways were crowded with traffic as families traveled between cities. Iran also announced it would close mosques for communal Friday prayers for a third consecutive week.


Iran threatens retaliation after what it calls possible cyberattack on nuclear site

Updated 5 min 40 sec ago

Iran threatens retaliation after what it calls possible cyberattack on nuclear site

DUBAI: Iran will retaliate against any country that carries out cyberattacks on its nuclear sites, the head of civilian defense said, after a fire at its Natanz plant which some Iranian officials said may have been caused by cyber sabotage.
The underground Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) is one of several Iranian facilities monitored by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog.
Iran’s top security body said on Friday that the cause of the “incident” at the nuclear site had been determined, but “due to security considerations” it would be announced at a convenient time.
Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) initially reported an “incident” had occurred early on Thursday at Natanz, located in the desert in the central province of Isfahan.
It later published a photo of a one-story brick building with its roof and walls partly burned. A door hanging off its hinges in the photo suggested that there had been an explosion inside the building.
“Responding to cyberattacks is part of the country’s defense might. If it is proven that our country has been targeted by a cyberattack, we will respond,” civil defense chief Gholamreza Jalali told state TV late on Thursday.
An article issued on Thursday by state news agency IRNA addressed what it called the possibility of sabotage by enemies such as Israel and the United States, although it stopped short of accusing either directly.
“So far Iran has tried to prevent intensifying crises and the formation of unpredictable conditions and situations,” IRNA said. “But the crossing of red lines of the Islamic Republic of Iran by hostile countries, especially the Zionist regime and the US, means that strategy...should be revised.”
SUSPICIONS
Three Iranian officials who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said they believed the fire was the result of a cyberattack, but did not cite any evidence.
One of the officials said the attack had targeted the centrifuge assembly building, referring to the delicate cylindrical machines that enrich uranium, and said Iran’s enemies had carried out similar acts in the past.
Two of the officials said Israel could have been behind the Natanz incident, but offered no evidence.
Asked on Thursday evening about recent incidents reported at strategic Iranian sites, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters: “Clearly we can’t get into that.”
The Israeli military and Netanyahu’s office, which oversees Israel’s foreign intelligence service Mossad, did not immediately respond to Reuters queries on Friday.
In 2010, Stuxnet computer virus, which is widely believed to have been developed by the United States and Israel, was discovered after it was used to attack Natanz facility.
Natanz was built in secret without the IAEA’s knowledge but was exposed by an Iranian opposition group in 2002. Iran acknowledged the sites existence in 2003.
The underground Natanz site remains the centerpiece of Iran’s enrichment program, though Tehran denies ever seeking nuclear weapons, saying its atomic program is only for peaceful purposes.
Iran curbed its nuclear work in exchange for the removal of most global sanctions under an accord reached with six world powers in 2015, but has reduced compliance with the deal’s restrictions since the United States withdrew in 2018.