Iran lets some Tehran businesses reopen after virus lockdown

Iranians wearing protective masks cross a main road in Tehran on April 13, 2020 during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP)
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Updated 18 April 2020

Iran lets some Tehran businesses reopen after virus lockdown

  • Gyms, restaurants, shopping malls and Tehran’s grand bazaar will remain closed
  • Shrines and mosques are also shuttered, and a ban on public gatherings remains in place

TEHRAN: Iran allowed some businesses in the capital 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 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.
Gyms, restaurants, shopping malls and Tehran’s grand bazaar will remain closed. Shrines and mosques are also shuttered, and a ban on public gatherings remains in place. Government offices have reopened with a third of employees working from home, and schools and universities are still 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.
The virus causes mild to moderate flu-like symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems.
Iran’s leaders have said they had 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 Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
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 recognize 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.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili denied nationality was a factor in the prisoner releases. He was quoted by the Hamshahri daily as saying release is denied when it is forbidden by law or when “their freedom puts our citizens’ social, economic and psychological security at risk.”
Elsewhere in the region, Sudanese formed long lines outside bakeries and fuel stations early Saturday ahead of a round-the-clock curfew in the capital, Khartoum, that is set to last three weeks. The country, which is still reeling from last year’s uprising that toppled longtime ruler Omar Al-Bashir, has reported 66 cases, including 10 deaths.
An outbreak in Sudan would severely strain the health system, which has been weakened by decades of civil war and sanctions.
Authorities have also banned Friday prayers in Khartoum mosques, a measure taken by several other countries in the region. The transitional government sacked Khartoum’s governor, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Abdoun Hamad, after he objected to the ban.
In Israel, authorities closed off two small Arab towns in the north to prevent the spread of the virus. Police said movement into and out of Deir Assad and neighboring Bineh would be strictly limited. Israel has increased testing in Arab areas in recent days, and the closures appeared to be linked to a spike in cases. Arab citizens of Israel account for 20% of the population and have long faced discrimination.
Israeli authorities have imposed similar closures on some ultra-Orthodox Jewish areas, where cases spiked after many disregarded health guidelines in the early days of the pandemic.
Israel, which imposed nationwide restrictions and ordered all non-essential businesses to close in mid-March, has reported more than 13,000 cases, including 158 deaths.


Turkey’s ties to Hamas risk hindering normalization with Israel

Members of the Stop Erdogan Now group protest outside the European Parliament in Brussels. The group demanded EU sanctions against the Turkish president. (Reuters)
Updated 54 min 23 sec ago

Turkey’s ties to Hamas risk hindering normalization with Israel

  • Ankara’s support for Hamas as well as its prioritization of Israel’s Palestine policies pose further challenges to already fragile relations with Israel

ANKARA: Amid speculations about a possible Turkish-Israeli rapprochement in the foreseeable future, Israel refuses to normalize relations with Turkey or return its envoy to Ankara until the activities of Hamas’ military wing in Istanbul end, Israeli news site Ynet reported on Monday.

This prerequisite prompted Ankara to bring forward its own conditions to reconcile with Israel. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara on Monday that relations would be normalized if Israel were to halt “its illegal actions, such as annexations against Palestine.”

Ankara’s support for Hamas as well as its prioritization of Israel’s Palestine policies pose further challenges to already fragile relations with Israel. Hundreds of Hamas operatives allegedly live in Turkey.

If both countries are sincere about restoring diplomatic ties, it is still unknown to what extent they are willing to give concessions on these red lines and at what cost.  

In 2018, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel to protest against the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, while the move was reciprocated by Israel who also recalled its own envoy in Ankara. 

In early 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted in Istanbul Ismail Haniyeh, political chief of Hamas, and Saleh Al-Arouri, the group’s top military commander, who has a $5 million US bounty on his head, prompting objections from Israel and Washington.  

While Turkey considers Hamas a legitimate political movement that is elected democratically in Gaza, Hamas is seen as a terror organization by the US, EU and Israel. 

In October 2020, The Times claimed that the military branch of Hamas had set up a secret office in Istanbul to remotely plot cyberattacks against its foes and that Turkey even granted Turkish citizenship and passports to dozens of high-ranking Hamas members to facilitate their travel in Europe. However, Ankara denied the claims. 

Turkey categorically denies providing sanctuary to a Hamas office in Istanbul. 

Since 2015, Israel has been asking Ankara to crack down on Hamas operatives who are settled there. It was also known as one of the preconditions for Turkey’s entry into the Western coalition against Daesh. 

Selin Nasi, a researcher on Turkey-Israel relations from Bogazici University in Istanbul, recalls that Ankara had expelled Al-Arouri prior to the reconciliation deal of 2016 and pledged to limit the activities of Hamas offices in Turkey.

“If Ankara agrees to downplay its support for Hamas, this might pave the way for a thaw in Turkish-Israeli relations. For Israelis, Turkey providing shelter to Hamas members in the country has been a major bone of contention. Because they see Hamas as a terror organization, so this is a national security matter,” she told Arab News. 

A letter penned by Haniyeh late in December and sent to several presidents of Islamic countries, including Erdogan, recently made headlines in Turkey, as he warned the Turkish president against any overture to Israel, saying that any steps toward normalization would benefit “Zionism.” 

Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, thinks Erdogan’s motivation is mainly ideological due to the well-known affinity with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movements, but perhaps also partly political. 

“Turkey formally supports two states, whereas Hamas rejects Israel’s existence. Based on formal policy, Turkey should be much more supportive of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas than Hamas, and that’s manifestly not the case,” he told Arab News. 

Makovsky thinks that supporting Hamas is not a vote-getter in the traditional sense because Hamas has been rated very negatively by the Turkish public. 

According to Pew Research Center’s most recent survey from 2014, Turks hold a negative view of Hamas, with 80 percent disapproving of it and only 8 percent approving the group. 

“The one political benefit Erdogan derives from supporting Hamas — and it’s not insignificant — is that it helps to keep the Islamist portion of his ruling Justice and Development Party firmly bonded to the party itself, rather than drifting over to the Islamist rival Felicity Party,” Makovsky said.   

According to Makovsky, it would be unthinkable for the Israelis to re-exchange ambassadors when they are convinced that Hamas is conducting operational planning from Turkey.  

“I doubt Israel is eager to exchange ambassadors with Turkey in any case. From Israel’s point of view, it would simply be an unearned gift that would help facilitate Erdogan’s relations with US President Joe Biden,” he said.

He added: “Were Turkey to expel Hamas and pledge to cease receiving visits from the likes of Hamas former leader Khaled Meshaal and senior Hamas figure Al-Arouri, Israel would resume ambassadorial-level relations in a nano-second.”

Researcher Nasi thinks that Ankara is equally concerned about the domestic implications of revamping support for the Muslim Brotherhood, at a time when the Palestinian issue is at an impasse and, even worse, it is no longer on the international agenda.

“From a strategic perspective, the cost of Turkey’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood policy seems to have exceeded its benefits, undermining Turkey’s relations with Egypt and the Gulf countries, resulting in regional isolation,” she said. “Ankara has reached a critical point where it needs to decide whether or not to prioritize geopolitical interests over ideology.”

According to Nasi, recent statements by the Turkish foreign minister suggest that the government is trying to find a diplomatic opening by reframing the conflict around the Palestinian issue and shifting the emphasis to Israel’s partial annexation of the West Bank. 

“Indeed, the signing of the Abraham Accords last summer practically shelved Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Therefore, the pre-condition that Cavusoglu mentioned on Monday has been already fulfilled,” she said. 

For Nasi, at the end of the day, it comes down to whether Turkey is willing to take a step toward strategic reorientation.