Pope Francis meets with Ayatollah Sistani during visit to Iraq
Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, held closed-door talks with Iraq’s prominent Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on the second day of his visit to the Arab country.
The meeting took place at Ayatollah Sistani’s residence in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday morning.
The office of Ayatollah Sistani said in a statement that he highlighted challenges facing mankind and stressed the role of belief in God and commitment to high moral values in overcoming them, Press TV reported.
Ayatollah Sistani cited injustice, oppression, poverty, religious persecution, repression of fundamental freedoms, wars, violence, economic siege and displacement of many people in the region, especially the Palestinians in the occupied territories as some of the major problems which afflict the world.
The cleric touched on the role which religious and spiritual leaders can play in tackling some of these problems.
Ayatollah Sistani said religious leaders have to encourage parties involved in conflicts, particularly the world powers, to give primacy to rationality over confrontation.
He also stressed the importance of efforts to strengthen peaceful coexistence and solidarity based on mutual respect among the followers of different religions and intellectual groups.
Ayatollah Sistani emphasized that the Christian citizens of Iraq, like all other Iraqis, should live in security and peace and enjoy their fundamental rights.
He referred to the role played by the religious authority in protecting Christians and all those who have suffered from the criminal acts of terrorists over the past years.
After the one-hour meeting, Pope Francis traveled to the Iraqi city of Ur, which is believed to be the birthplace of Prophet Abraham (PBUH).
The pontiff arrived in Iraq on Friday for a three-day trip amid concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to Ayatollah Sistani, Pope Francis has so far met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and President Barham Salih.
Iraq’s Christian community has seen its numbers drop from nearly 1.5 million to about 250,000, less than 1% of the population over the last two decades.
Iraqi Christians fled the country to escape the chaos and violence that ensued after the US invasion of the country in 2003.
Tens of thousands were also displaced when the Daesh terrorist group overran vast swathes in northern Iraq in 2014, targeting various ethnic and religious groups of the country.
The Takfiri terrorist group was vanquished in December 2017 after a three-year anti-terror military campaign with the crucial support of neighboring Iran.
Daesh’s remnants, though, keep staging sporadic attacks across Iraq, attempting to regroup and unleash a new reign of terror.
The terrorist group has intensified its deadly attacks in Iraq since January 2020, when the US assassinated legendary anti-terror Iranian commander General Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi trenchmate Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis near Baghdad airport.
Saraya Awliya al-Dam group, part of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units better known as Hash al-Sha’abi, announced in a statement that it had stopped all its anti-terror operations during the pope’s visit and out of respect for Ayatollah Sistani.
The statement also condemned the assassination of Muhandis and General Soleimani who was targeted during an official visit to Iraq.
“We, Arabs, warmly receive our guests. Unlike the United States which betrayed the official guest of Iraq and warrior of Islam, General Soleimani, we will never follow such an approach,” the statement said.
Saraya Awliya al-Dam group also published a poster, featuring General Soleimani’s severed hand after the US drone airstrike and the Arabic words, “Does the pope know this is the hand that brought the ringing of bells back to churches.”
Ahead of the visit, infectious disease experts had expressed concern about Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq, given a sharp rise in coronavirus infections there, a fragile health care system and the unavoidable likelihood that some people would crowd to see him.
Health experts say from a purely epidemiological standpoint, as well as the public health message it sends, the papal trip to Iraq amid a global pandemic is not wise.
Their concerns were reinforced with the news last week that the Vatican ambassador to Iraq, the main point person for the trip who would have escorted Francis to all his appointments, had tested positive for COVID-19 and was self-isolating.
EIKO inaugurates 450 projects in Tehran
Domestic Economy Desk
A sum of 450 schools, mosques and cultural centers constructed by the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO) were inaugurated in a ceremony attended by Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi-Golpayegani, the chief of staff of the Leader, Mohammad Mokhber, the head of the EIKO and Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei, the minister of education in Tehran on Saturday.
Head of the Organization for Development, Renovation and Equipping Schools of Iran and CEOs of Barakat Foundation, Ehsan Foundation and Tadbir Foundation also took part in the ceremony during which a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the construction of 1,000 rural schools was signed.
At the beginning of the ceremony, the participants visited an exhibition of EIKO achievements and three saplings were also planted by Mohammadi-Golpayegani, Mokhber and Haji-Mirzaei.
Addressing the ceremony, Mokhber presented an annual report of the EIKO and said, “Our first priority in the headquarters is to create jobs and eradicate unemployment in the country.”
The main activities of the EIKO subsidiaries revolve around the implementation of job-creating projects and the revival of closed plants and enterprises, he noted.
Mokhber added, “For the current [Iranian] year, we had plans to create 300,000 jobs throughout the country, and 400,000 jobs will be created in underdeveloped regions in the next year.”
Referring to the support of the EIKO for plans and ideas of new technology-based firms (NTBFs) as another priority, the official added that currently 50 percent of investment in risky projects of some Iranian NTBFs is done by the headquarters.
Mokhber said, “Considering the success of the COVIran Barakat vaccine in the first phase of clinical studies, with the permission and approval of the Ministry of Health, we will start simultaneously the second and third phases of the human test of the first Iranian corona vaccine by March 15.”
Referring to the readiness for mass production of vaccine after its final approval by the Ministry of Health, he said, “We will launch the largest vaccine production plant in the region and will carry out mass production of COVIran Barakat by mid-June.”
Talking in the ceremony, Mohammadi-Golpayegani said great projects have been done by the EIKO and it really made me happy to hear Mokhber’s report on extensive services during these years.
Haji-Mirzaei, said in the ceremony that the efforts of the EIKO in recent years are a source of pride for all of us, and on behalf of the education community, I thank Mokhber and his colleagues.
He added, “So far, hundreds of schools have been built through the cooperation of the EIKO in deprived areas and an MoU was signed recently with the Organization for Development, Renovation and Equipping Schools of Iran for the construction of 3,000 schools.”
Talking in the ceremony, Amirhossein Madani, the CEO of Barakat Foundation pointed to the opening of new schools and cultural centers, saying, “Today, 100 earthquake-resistant schools and 350 mosques and cultural center were opened in 24 provinces of the country.”
By inaugurating 100 schools, the number of schools constructed by the EIKO during current [Iranian] year reached 250.
Zarif raps new US administration for exerting Trump’s failed ‘maximum pressure’
Biden extends anti-Iran sanctions
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif censured the new US administration for pursuing the “maximum pressure” campaign launched by former president Donald Trump even during the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
In a post on his Twitter account on Friday, Zarif published the image of a 6.5-year-old Iranian girl who was affected by the US sanctions, and a letter written by her and addressed to the US.
“This is a little girl who’s paid the price for cruel & inhumane choices of politicians far away,” Zarif said, according to Press TV.
He added that the girl’s situation is not “unique” in Iran as the United States “continues to exert Trump’s failed ‘maximum pressure’ on Iranians” even amid COVID-19.
Zarif asked, “Isn’t it time to try something that may actually work?”
In 2015, Iran and six world states — the US, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China — signed the historic nuclear deal — formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – which was ratified in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 2231.
However, the US under Trump unilaterally pulled out of the JCPOA in May 2018 and reinstated the anti-Iran sanctions that had been lifted by the deal.
The Trump administration also launched what it called a maximum pressure campaign against Iran, targeting the Iranian nation with the “toughest ever” restrictive measures that Iran has condemned as “economic terrorism”.
Trump’s maximum pressure has been met with Iran’s “maximum resistance” policy, which includes economic measures to weather the pressure as well as reducing Tehran’s commitments under the JCPOA.
US President Joe Biden has indicated his administration’s willingness to return to the JCPOA, but Washington has been dragging its feet on taking action to undo Trump’s policy.
Joe, who had said Trump’s maximum pressure policy was “maximum failure”, has not changed that policy, with Tehran saying “Washington is addicted to pressure, sanctions and bullying, and it does not work with Iran”.
The US president on Friday extended for another year the national emergency declared with respect to Iran in the year 1995, the White House announced.
In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Biden said, “I have determined that it is necessary to continue the national emergency declared in Executive Order 12957 with respect to Iran and to maintain in force comprehensive sanctions against Iran to respond to this threat.”
According to Sputnik, he further said that the decision has been taken as the actions and policies of the government of Iran
continue to pose “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the
national security, foreign policy, and economy of the US.
Three Persian Gulf islands ‘integral’ part of Iran: Foreign Ministry
Iran’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the Arab League’s “fruitless claims” about three Persian Gulf islands, saying those territories are an “integral” part of the Iranian soil.
“It is unfortunate that some Arab countries are trying to divert the public opinion from their wicked and destructive actions by creating an imaginary enemy instead of addressing the main problems gripping the Arab world, such as letting the occupying tension-creating Zionist regime into the region, not doing enough regarding the Palestinian cause, continuing the oppressive war against Arab people in Yemen, creating the most heinous humanitarian crisis of the present era, and supporting terrorism and terrorist groups for years,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said, Press TV reported.
The remarks came after foreign ministers of the Arab League made accusations against the Islamic Republic in a resolution adopted during their meeting in the Egyptian capital of Cairo on Wednesday.
The Arab League resolution alleged that Iran’s “occupation” of the Persian Gulf islands of the Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa violates the United Arab Emirates’ sovereignty in a way that destabilizes the region and threatens international peace and security.
The strategically-positioned islands have always been part of Iran, the proof of which can be found in and corroborated by countless historical, legal, and geographical documents in Iran and other parts of the
“The repetition of the fruitless claims regarding the three Iranian islands does not and will not change the existing geographical and historical facts. These islands are an integral part of the Iranian territory,” Khatibzadeh said.
He also stressed that Iran’s principled policy toward its neighbors is based on good neighborliness, mutual respect and noninterference in their internal affairs.
The spokesman expressed hope that the Arab League and certain regional states would move toward regional dialogue and cooperation, instead of issuing empty and provocative statements that only prolong the current destructive trend.
Iran: Israel’s secretive nuke facility development serious threat to int’l security
Iran’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna criticized a “preferential treatment” given to Israel that allows it to press ahead with advancing its nuclear weapons program in defiance of international calls, saying Tel Aviv’s activities at a highly-secretive nuclear facility pose a serious threat to regional and international security and stability.
In a statement to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazem Gharibabadi said that all in the Middle East region, except Israel, are parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and have undertaken to accept the IAEA’s comprehensive Safeguards.
Therefore, he added, the “development of a clandestine nuclear weapon program by this regime (Israel) poses a continuing serious threat not only to the security and stability of the region and the world, but also to the effectiveness and efficiency of the NPT and the agency’s Safeguards regime”, Press TV wrote on Saturday.
The envoy emphasized that Israel is also not a party to any other major treaties governing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Citing commercial satellite imagery of the facility, the International Panel on Fissile Material (IPFM), a group of independent nuclear experts from 17 countries, reported last month that “significant new construction” had been underway at the Dimona complex.
The construction site sits “in the immediate vicinity of the buildings that house the nuclear reactor and the reprocessing plant,” the report said.
The Iranian envoy further said despite many resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and the IAEA over decades about Israel’s nuclear capabilities and the associated threats, the regime regrettably continues to ignore the international community by downplaying the significance of the NPT and refusing to place all its nuclear facilities and activities under the IAEA’s comprehensive Safeguards
“Ironically, Israel is now even enjoying a more preferential treatment as compared with that of the nuclear weapon states, since they are members to the NPT and have several obligations specifically under articles I and VI of the treaty,” Gharibabadi added.
He also criticized as a “clear contradiction” the fact that Israel, a non-member to the NPT, enjoys the full rights and privileges of the IAEA due to its membership while at the same time, it considers itself free from any responsibility and participates in all deliberations of the agency related to the NPT members.
“Such a situation has given this regime the audacity to ridicule the authority and mandate of the agency in preventing the diversion of its nuclear materials and activities,” he added,
“Most importantly, this regime has become so cynically bold as to manipulate the realities and criticize other members of the NPT on the account that they have obligations due to their membership in the treaty, but Israel has not. This is a very serious shortcoming and failure in the work of the agency, which should be addressed properly.”
Gharibabadi warned that overlooking such an important issue directly affects regional and international peace and stability, challenges the established global disarmament and arms control norms, and damages the credibility and viability of the current disarmament and arms control architecture, including the IAEA and its Safeguards regime.
He urged the IAEA to take a clear stand on unacceptability of the Israeli regime’s remaining outside the NPT framework and its continuing defiance to placing all its nuclear activities and facilities under the UN nuclear agency’s comprehensive Safeguards system.
“The agency has no choice but to take appropriate measures to ensure that Israel places all its nuclear installations under the agency’s Safeguards and accedes to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon party,” the Iranian diplomat pointed out.
He said it is an irony that the IAEA, its secretariat, the Board of Governors and the General Conference are all concentrating on the NPT members “while the chronic strategic mistake is to overlook Israel’s nuclear materials and activities in the volatile region of the Middle East.”
Under its policy of nuclear ambiguity, the Israeli regime neither confirms nor denies having nuclear weapons. However, the regime is widely believed to have nuclear weapons.
At the same time, Tel Aviv has repeatedly called for international action against Iran’s nuclear program, which has been consistently verified by the IAEA to be of peaceful nature, unlike that of Israel which is not under the IAEA’s inspection.
Israel upgrading Iran attack plan
In a fresh threat against Iran, Israel said it is upgrading contingency plans to strike Iranian targets if Tehran shows signs of nuclear escalation.
Minister Benny Gantz told the American cable network Fox News that Israel is still working on its plans, but that “we have them in our hands of course”.
His comments came as US President Joe Biden considers rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, AP wrote.
Former US president Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear accord in 2018 and imposed a so-called campaign of maximum pressure, including sanctions, on Tehran.
Israel has vehemently opposed the nuclear deal.
“We have them (plans) in our hands of course but we will continue constantly improving them,” Gantz said. “The Iranian nuclear escalation must be stalled… If not, we must stand independently.”
Rouhani: Travel to red, orange zones banned during New Year holidays
President Hassan Rouhani said travel to Iranian cities categorized as red and orange zones, in terms of the extent of the coronavirus spread, will be prohibited in the Norouz holidays, annually celebrated during March 21-April 2 to mark the arrival of the New Year in Iran.
In an address to a meeting of the National Task Force for Fighting Coronavirus on Saturday, Rouhani called on people to refrain from planning to travel to these cities and do their shopping online as much as they can, IRNA reported.
He urged Iranian people to keep observing the health protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic as vaccine production in the world is limited and its distribution is uneven.
The president warned people against underestimating the situation and continue to abide by the COVID-19 restrictions, according to Tasnim News Agency.
“People should keep in mind that the production of (coronavirus) vaccine in the world has limitations and it is not possible to produce vaccine for the entire population. In addition, the distribution of vaccine is not fair,” Rouhani noted, stressing that vaccine rollouts would not mean an end to the challenge.
He called on the Iranians to maintain the lifestyle under the pandemic for another year.
The Iranian Health Ministry has drawn up plans to restrict intercity travel during Norouz. People have been advised to stay home and exercise caution as a new strain of COVID-19, first found in the UK, is spreading in Iran.
On Friday, Iranian Health Minister Saeid Namaki said his ministry is absolutely against intercity travel during the Norouz holidays, as the period is needed to be used for the revival of the country’s worn out medical staff.
He described as extremely worrying the unrestrained travel, which leads to the overcrowding of the roads and public places, and the rapid spread of the mutated coronavirus strains.
The minister regretted that the country’s medical staff is weakening day by day, stressing intercity travel is the most important factor and very effective in the spread of the UK strain of the virus.
Namaki said each month, 1,000 beds (a total of 11,000) are added to the country’s hospital capacity, which has been unprecedented in Iran’s history.
Amid the pandemic, Iran managed to increase the number of ICU beds at its hospitals by 2,500 in less than 45 days, he noted, adding given the critical condition in the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan in terms of the coronavirus spread, 70 new beds are being added to the province’s hospital capacity.
On Saturday, Iranian Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat-Lari said 82 patients in the country died from COVID-19 over the past 24 hours.
She put at 60,594 the total number of deaths in Iran since the outbreak of the pandemic in Iran in late February 2020.
Lari said the number of daily infections during the 24-hour period to Saturday noon stood at 8,212, of whom 527 were hospitalized.
The spokeswoman added the total number of Iran’s infections has reached 1,681,682, noting that of this figure, 1,435,357 patients have either recovered or been discharged from hospitals across the country.
She regretted that 3,784 COVID-19 patients are currently in critical condition in the country.
Since its outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected over 116.78 million people across the world, of whom more than 2.59 million people have lost their lives.
On Thursday, Iran received the third batch of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V, said the deputy chairman of the Islamic Republic of Iran Customs Administration (IRICA), Mehrdad Jamali, according to Fars News Agency.
He added the batch would be delivered to the health ministry officials to be sent to vaccination centers across the country.
The new batch contains 200,000 doses of Sputnik V, the jab developed by Russia and approved in Iran for the vaccination of the health staff and vulnerable groups.
Iran received the first shipment of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine on February 6. The country is expected to receive nearly four million doses of vaccine from the COVAX program.
Iran started nationwide COVID-19 vaccination on February 9 using the Sputnik V vaccine.
On Wednesday, Namaki expressed hope that the country would complete vaccination of high-risk and vulnerable groups against the coronavirus by March 20, 2021.
He added 250,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine were imported a few days ago, noting that the country will receive another 1.2 million doses by March 20, IRNA reported.
Irish FM voices ‘strong’ support for JCPOA ahead of Iran visit
Russia says ready to help revive nuclear deal in original form
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Saturday his country is “a strong supporter” of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal ahead of trip to Tehran.
Coveney is set to meet President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday in his role as a UN Security Council facilitator of the nuclear deal agreed in 2015 between Iran and major world powers.
“Ireland is a strong supporter of the JCPOA. In our role as facilitator, Ireland is keen to maintain a close dialogue with all actors, and encourage all parties to return to full compliance with the agreement,” Coveney said in a statement, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal.
European Union member Ireland in January took up its seat as one of 15 members of the United Nations Security Council and the country has been appointed a facilitator of the nuclear deal for the Security Council.
According to Reuters, European sources this week said that Tehran had given positive signs about opening informal talks about reviving the JCPOA after European powers scrapped plans to criticize Tehran at the UN nuclear watchdog.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is also due to meet Coveney during the trip, on Friday said Iran would soon present a “constructive” plan of action.
Tehran and Washington have emerged from former US president Donald Trump’s attempts to wreck the Iran nuclear deal locked in a standoff over who should move first act to save it. Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018 and reinstated and reinforced sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under the JCPOA.
A year later, Iran began to reduce its commitments to the deal in retaliation.
Britain, France and Germany decided to pause the submission of a resolution critical of Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday to not harm the prospects for diplomacy.
Coveney’s visit comes after his ministry this week announced plans to reopen Ireland’s Embassy in Tehran by 2023. The embassy was closed in 2012 as part of budget cuts.
‘Window of opportunity’
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “a window of opportunity” for saving the multilateral nuclear deal remains open, expressing hope that all sides will return to the full implementation of the agreement in its original form.
“We hope that it will become possible to improve the situation in the near future and to return the JCPOA implementation process to the initially coordinated framework,” Lavrov said in an interview with the Russkaya Mysl magazine published in the UK.
He added that the revival of the JCPOA is possible only if all parties to the agreement fully implement their commitments, Press TV wrote.
“Tehran has repeatedly spoken in favor of its willingness to completely unfreeze all of the JCPOA’s provisions that it had suspended as soon as the forfeited balance of interests is restored,” the top Russian diplomat said.
He emphasized that Moscow is “closely” cooperating with all the JCPOA participants to secure their full compliance with the deal. “For example, we also maintain regular contact with European partners for elaborating possible decisions to rectify the current situation.”