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As Epidemic Rages On In Iran, Lack Of Revenues Pressures Rouhani

A carpet seller wears a protective face mask as he talks to a customer, following the outbreak of COVID-1), after shopping malls and bazaars reopened in Tehran. April 20, 2020
A carpet seller wears a protective face mask as he talks to a customer, following the outbreak of COVID-1), after shopping malls and bazaars reopened in Tehran. April 20, 2020

A senior Iranian Health Ministry official says the coronavirus epidemic in Iran has still not reached its peak, meaning the number of infections and deaths are still on the rise.

Nevertheless, in what has been described by Presidential adviser Hesamoddin Ashna as "one of the most difficult meetings on the situation of the outbreak," President Hassan Rouhani explained yet another "new decision" that divides Iran’s provinces into three categories, white, yellow and red, depending on the level of the health crisis. The odd thing is that white means all clear.

Rouhani said shrines and religious sites will be reopened in 127 areas described as "white areas" upon the attestation of the Health Ministry, either by the end of next week or in mid-Ramadan (around mid-May).

This comes while Hossein Erfani, the Chairman of Contagious Diseases Office of the Health Ministry warned in an interview on Iran's state TV Saturday evening that "people should not think that the epidemic is over and they can go around as they wish," adding that people should stay home if they do not have anything important to do outside.

Meanwhile, Tehran City Councillor Mohammad Javad Haqshenas said 40 to 45 percent of the people in the Iranian capital are living under the poverty line and need financial support from the government.

He said the financial situation in the suburbs of Tehran is more critical and millions of people living there cannot make ends meet unless the government helps them.

Haqshenas said that the Tehran Municipality and the Mostazafan Foundation have plans to extend financial assistance to 5,000 peddlers in Tehran but there are more people in need including another five thousand homeless people.

On Saturday, the Culture Minister Abbas Salehi warned Tehran City Council's Chairman Mohsen Hashemi not to give away facts and figures about those affected by the epidemic as “enemy media” might take advantage. The warning came after Hashemi told the press that the number of those affected by the epidemic is much higher than government figures.

Hashemi said on Sunday that councillors have better access to death toll as they control the Tehran cemetery, Behesht-e Zahra.

Meanwhile President Rouhani who ordered the reopening of low and medium-risk businesses last week, said today that in the warmer southern provinces of Iran, shopping centers can now remain open until 8 PM. Rouhani further added that congregational prayers could also be resumed in those areas based on certain protocols, although he did not elaborate further.

Iranian media reported last week that the Rouhani administration was under a lot of pressure by hardliners to reopen the shrines. However, Rouhani said on Sunday that "for instance, if we open the shrine in Mashhad, then people will be travelling to that city by busy trains and buses and will be staying at hotels and frequenting the markets around the shrine. So, the matter must be seen in a wider context."

Recent reports have been indicating that a sharp decline in the Iranian government's tax and oil revenues have made it difficult for the Rouhani administration to extend financial assistance to the people in need. On Sunday, he called on the rich to donate food and money to the poor.

Economic hardship perhaps justifies Rouhani's hurry in ending social distancing restrictions. However, pressures coming from hardliner clerics also push him toward a potentially dangerous early end to restrictions.

Last week when Rouhani ordered the reopening of parks, hardliner newspaper Kayhan, which enjoys Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's support, complained "Why parks can be opened and shrines cannot? They can be controlled much easier than parks."

The Kayhan chose to ignore the fact that even Khamenei, is holding his Koran recitation sessions in Ramadan this year via video teleconference in order not to have a large group of people sitting next to each other, and of course, close to him.

Khamenei is by far the only senior Iranian official that has been strictly observing self-isolation and social distancing rules during recent months. Others, including Rouhani, appear in daily meetings, sometimes even without using masks.

Khamenei has not been seen among visitors and even aides since January when the only person who has been seen with him only once in a video or picture was his family doctor Alireza Marandi. In those rare videos, Khamenei is seen sitting in what could be a self-op studio where he controls the camera with a classic wired button.