‘Become stronger’: Iranians urged to vote as Mideast tensions soar

Men walk past a wall bearing an electoral campaign poster, ahead of the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections, in Tehran on Saturday. (AFP)
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Updated 26 February 2024
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‘Become stronger’: Iranians urged to vote as Mideast tensions soar

  • Voters in the Islamic republic will pick a new parliament for another four years

QOM,Iran: In the Iranian shrine city of Qom, huge street banners remind voters to head to the polls in Friday’s parliamentary elections, held as the Gaza war stokes Middle East tensions.

Voters in the Islamic republic will pick a new parliament for another four years, as well as members of the Assembly of Experts in charge of electing Iran’s supreme leader.

The vote comes amid a biting economic crisis and will be the first since Iran was rocked by nationwide protests over the death of Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini, 22, after her arrest for allegedly violating the strict dress code for women.

Large posters around Qom — around 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of the capital Tehran — show Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in front of a ballot box, with a message urging people to vote in order for Iran “to become stronger.”

Islamic theology student Mohammad Jafari said he will heed the call, voicing hope that the election will strengthen Iran at a time its arch enemy Israel is fighting a devastating war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“The elections will strengthen both the country’s internal and international standing,” said 27-year-old Jafari in Qom, a center of Shiite Muslim shrines and home to renowned religious scholars.

The Gaza war broke out after the unprecedented October 7 attack by Hamas militants claimed about 1,160 lives in Israel, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Israel’s military campaign has killed at least 29,782 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s Health Ministry.

Iran and Israel are bitter enemies, and Tehran has made support for the Palestinian cause a centerpiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Iran has supported Hamas in the war, but denied any direct involvement in its attack, or in military action launched by allied armed groups in countries from Lebanon to Yemen.

To Jafari, it is important that “our enemies see that the government has the support of the people” to deter military threats against it.

Regional tensions have soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, also drawing in Iran-backed militant groups in Syria and Iraq.

Iran has repeatedly said it does not seek an “expansion” of conflict.

Rahbari, a 40-year-old housewife in Qom, said the elections are an opportunity to assert Iran’s “independence” and “neutralize all enemy plots.”

She said it is important to vote given “the events that are happening in the region and also the threats made by Iran’s enemies.”

Iran’s current parliament, elected in 2020, has been dominated by conservatives and ultra-conservatives after many reformists and moderates were disqualified.

The 2020 elections saw the lowest voter turnout since 1979 — while a recent poll conducted by Iran’s state television found that more than half of respondents were indifferent to the elections.

Jafari believes a low turnout this time would show Iran “is in the grip of unrest and divisions,” fearing this might prompt a “military attack” on its territory.

But for others in Iran, the war in Gaza is not a major concern.

Iran’s economy has been reeling under crippling US sanctions imposed over its contested nuclear program, and inflation in recent years has hovered near 50 percent.

The 88-member Assembly of Experts is tasked with electing, supervising and, if necessary, dismissing the supreme leader, who has the final say in all matters of state in Iran.

Khamenei, now 84, has held the post since 1989.

Former moderate president Hassan Rouhani has called on the people to vote “to protest against the ruling minority.”

Rouhani recently announced that he was barred from seeking reelection to the Assembly of Experts after 24 years of membership.

Meanwhile a coalition called the Reform Front has said it will not take part in “meaningless, non-competitive and ineffective elections.”

Majid Hosseini, a farmer visiting the Masoumeh shrine in Qom, insisted that the elections this year are particularly important.

“If we do not participate, all these 40 years of hard work will be lost,” the 79-year-old said, referring to the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Similarly, Mehdi Mousavi believes choosing the Assembly of Experts is especially significant.

The assembly is “the guarantor of preserving Islam,” said the 39-year-old Qom resident, noting that its members are “experts in the important religious issues.”


Jordan King issues decree to hold parliamentary elections - state TV

Updated 10 sec ago
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Jordan King issues decree to hold parliamentary elections - state TV

DUBAI: Jordan King issues decree to hold parliamentary elections - State TV 


Iran, Pakistan urge UN Security Council to take action against Israel

Updated 15 min 46 sec ago
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Iran, Pakistan urge UN Security Council to take action against Israel

  • The joint statement followed a three-day visit to the country by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi
  • Muslim neighbors Iran and Pakistan are seeking to mend ties after unprecedented tit-for-tat military strikes this year

ISLAMABAD: Iran and Pakistan called on the United Nations Security Council in a joint statement issued on Wednesday to take action against Israel, saying it had “illegally” targeted neighboring countries and foreign diplomatic facilities.
The joint statement, released by Pakistan’s foreign ministry, followed a three-day visit to the country by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at a time of heightened tensions in the Middle East.
Explosions were heard last Friday over the Iranian city of Isfahan in what sources said was an Israeli attack. However, Tehran played down the incident and said it had no plans for retaliation.
“Recognizing that the irresponsible act of the Israeli regime forces was a major escalation in an already volatile region, both sides called on the UN Security Council to prevent the Israeli regime from its adventurism in the region and its illegal acts attacking its neighbors...,” Iran and Pakistan said in their joint statement.
Muslim neighbors Iran and Pakistan are seeking to mend ties after unprecedented tit-for-tat military strikes this year.
Raisi, who wrapped up his visit and flew on to Sri Lanka on Wednesday, vowed to boost trade between Iran and Pakistan to $10 billion a year.
During his visit to Pakistan, Raisi was quoted by Iran’s official IRNA news agency as saying any further Israeli attack on Iranian territory
could radically change the dynamics and result in there being nothing left of the “Zionist regime.”
On April 13, Tehran launched a barrage of missiles and drones at Israel in what it said was retaliation for Israel’s suspected deadly strike on the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus on April 1, but almost all were shot down.
Pakistan has previously called for de-escalation by “all parties.”
Iran and Pakistan vowed during Raisi’s visit to boost trade and energy cooperation, including on a major gas pipeline deal that has faced delays due to geopolitical issues and international sanctions.


Lebanon’s Hezbollah says fired ‘dozens’ of rockets at Israel

Updated 24 April 2024
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Lebanon’s Hezbollah says fired ‘dozens’ of rockets at Israel

  • Hezbollah has exchanged near-daily fire with the Israeli army
  • Israel says 11 soldiers and eight civilians have been killed on its side of the border

Beirut: Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said it fired a fresh barrage of rockets across the border on Wednesday after a strike blamed on Israel killed two civilians.
The group had already fired rockets at northern Israel late on Tuesday “in response” to the civilian deaths.
Hezbollah has exchanged near-daily fire with the Israeli army since its ally Hamas carried out an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7, triggering war in Gaza.
It has stepped up its rocket fire on Israeli military bases in recent days.
Hezbollah fighters fired “dozens of Katyusha rockets” at a border village in northern Israel “as part of the response to the Israeli enemy’s attacks on... civilian homes,” the group said in a statement.
On Tuesday, rescue teams said an Israeli strike on a house in the southern village of Hanin killed a woman in her fifties and a girl from the same family.
Since October 7, at least 380 people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly Hezbollah fighters but also 72 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
Israel says 11 soldiers and eight civilians have been killed on its side of the border.


Germany to resume cooperation with Palestinian UNRWA agency

Updated 24 April 2024
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Germany to resume cooperation with Palestinian UNRWA agency

BERLIN: The German government plans to resume cooperation with the UN agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) in Gaza, the foreign and development ministries said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
The decision follows an investigation by the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna into whether some UNRWA employees were involved in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.
The Colonna-led review of the agency’s neutrality on Monday concluded Israel had yet to back up its accusations that hundreds of UNRWA staff were operatives in Gaza terrorist groups.
The German ministries urged UNRWA to swiftly implement the report’s recommendations, including strengthening its internal audit function and improving external oversight of project management.
“In support of these reforms, the German government will soon continue its cooperation with UNRWA in Gaza, as Australia, Canada, Sweden and Japan, among others, have already done,” said the ministries in the statement.


Rafah evacuations not ‘possible’ under current conditions: Red Cross

Updated 46 min 26 sec ago
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Rafah evacuations not ‘possible’ under current conditions: Red Cross

  • Israel has killed at least 34,183 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to Gaza health ministry
  • Israeli media predict offensive in Gaza’s Rafah soon

DUBAI: Humanitarian workers have no knowledge of plans to evacuate Palestinians from Gaza’s southernmost city ahead of an expected Israeli assault, but such a transfer would not be “possible” under current conditions, a Red Cross official told AFP on Tuesday.
“The rumor is that the probability of a major operation in Rafah is increasing,” Fabrizio Carboni, Middle East regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said on the sidelines of an aid conference in the United Arab Emirates.
“When we see the level of destruction in the middle area (of Gaza) and in the north, it’s not clear to us where people will be moved to... where they can have decent shelter and essential services,” he added.
“So today, with the information we have and from where we stand, we don’t see this (massive evacuation) as possible.”

Israel is poised to send troops into Rafah, the Gazan city it sees as the last bastion of Hamas, Israeli media reported on Wednesday, saying preparations were under way to evacuate war-displaced Palestinian civilians who have been sheltering there.

The Rafah sweep, postponed for several weeks amid disputes with Washington, will happen “very soon,” the mass-circulation Israel Hayom newspaper said, citing a decision by the Israeli government after ceasefire talks with Hamas stalled.
Several other Israeli media outlets carried similar reports. Some noted footage on social media that appeared to show the erection of a tent city for Rafah evacuees.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office and the Israeli military spokesperson’s office had no immediate comment.
More than 1.5 million of Gaza’s population of 2.4 million had sheltered in Rafah, the last major population center in Gaza that Israeli ground troops have yet to enter, though thousands have been seen heading back north.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for two months talked of sending troops into Rafah to go after Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs Gaza.
On Sunday, he said the Israeli military would increase pressure to “deliver additional and painful blows” to the group behind the October 7 attack on Israel which triggered the ongoing war.
But Israel’s allies including Washington have warned against a Rafah operation, fearing a worsening of Gaza’s already catastrophic humanitarian conditions.
“We don’t see for the time being any plans for civilian evacuations,” Carboni said during the interview on Tuesday at the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference (DIHAD).
But “there is no condition for a military operation without devastating humanitarian consequences,” he added.
“Considering the level of destruction, considering that people are tired, some of them wounded and sick, and the limited access to food and essential services, I see (evacuations) as extremely challenging.”

The Israeli government said it was planning different evacuation scenarios, including the creation of tent cities that would be spared the fighting and would be set up with international support.
Citing Egyptian officials briefed on the Israeli plan, the Wall Street Journal reported that the evacuation operation would last two to three weeks and be carried out in coordination with the United States and Arab countries, including the UAE as well as Egypt.
But Carboni said an evacuation would be “difficult” to complete in that time frame.
Also speaking to AFP at DIHAD on Tuesday, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said that “everybody seems to be on a countdown to war across the largest displacement camp on earth, which is Rafah.”
Describing a Rafah onslaught as an “apocalyptic situation,” Jan Egeland said aid workers operating inside Gaza have not been briefed on plans to mitigate civilian suffering during a Rafah offensive.
“There is no information, no consultation with the humanitarians, no advice, no hope,” he said.
Humanitarians in Gaza are “not hearing from the donors. They’re not hearing from the Western sponsors of Israel, and nothing from Israel itself,” Egeland said.
“What they hear is that Netanyahu says that he will attack but not plans for where should the civilians go, how can aid be provided or how can access be secured.
“We are completely in the dark on how to mitigate this countdown to a catastrophe.”

The little aid that is entering Gaza is being distributed in real time leaving no buffer stock that could be used in the event of a massive population movement, Egeland said.
“There is no stocks, there is no fuel and more importantly, there is no liquidity. There is no money, we cannot pay our staff salaries. We cannot pay those who deliver the services,” the NRC chief added.
Egeland said some Palestinians had returned to areas in northern Gaza in recent weeks but that more than one million remained in Rafah.
For those who have left “what awaits them in the north is ruins, complete ruins and unexploded ordinance and, in many cases, more bombardment,” he said.
“There is no safe place in Gaza if people leave Rafah.”
The Gaza war began with the unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 34,183 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.