Virus ravaging Iran kills confidant of its supreme leader

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A member of a council that advises Iran’s supreme leader died Monday from the new coronavirus, becoming the highest-ranking official within the Islamic Republic’s Shiite theocracy to be killed by the illness ravaging the country.

The death of Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi came as Iran announced the virus had killed at least 66 people among 1,501 confirmed cases. There are now 1,700 cases of the new coronavirus across the Mideast. Of those outside Iran, most link back to the Islamic Republic, which after China has the highest death toll from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.

After downplaying the coronavirus as recently as last week, Iranian authorities now say they have plans to potentially mobilize 300,000 soldiers and volunteers to confront the virus.

Yet experts still worry Iran’s percentage of deaths to infections, now around 4.4%, is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be much higher than current figures show. Saudi Arabia and Jordan meanwhile announced their first cases of the virus Monday.

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Mirmohammadi, 71, died at a north Tehran hospital of the virus, state media said. His mother had reportedly died of the coronavirus in recent days as well.

Mirmohammadi, though not particularly well-known to the Iranian public, served as a top official in the presidencies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, now the country’s supreme leader. The state-run IRNA news agency described Mirmohammadi, whose father also once served on the Expediency Council, as having a close relationship to Khamenei.

The Expediency Council advises the supreme leader, as well as settles disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council, Iran’s constitutional watchdog that also oversees the country’s elections. The 45-member Expediency Council, which also includes former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and officials close to Khamenei, last met in February with Mirmohammadi on hand.

Mirmohammadi’s death makes him the highest-ranking official within Iran’s theocracy to be killed by the virus. The virus earlier killed Hadi Khosroshahi, Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican, as well as a recently elected member of parliament.

Iran stands alone in how the virus has affected its government, even compared to hard-hit China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Those sick include Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as “Sister Mary,” the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis, state media reported. Also sick is Iraj Harirchi, the head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who tried to downplay the virus before falling ill.

Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei, himself addressing journalists by teleconference over concerns about the virus, acknowledged the challenges remaining for the Islamic Republic.

“We will have two difficult weeks ahead,” he said.

Health Ministry spokesman Ali Reza Raisi, who gave the new figures for the virus Monday, said that Iran’s armed forces and its Basij, the all-volunteer arm of its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, stood ready to mobilize 300,000 troops to help combat the virus. Already, Guard vehicles have been spraying disinfectant on streets in major cities.

Those troops would help sanitize public areas, as well as running down leads on who infected people had contacted before falling ill, Raisi said.

Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, no relation to the health ministry official, acknowledged some people had begun stockpiling medical supplies for profit in the country. He urged prosecutors to show “no mercy for hoarders.”

“Hoarding sanitizing items is playing with people’s lives and it is not ignorable,” Raisi said.

Aid has been reaching Iran, despite international firms worried about conducting business with Tehran after the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers and imposed sanctions. Some 7.5 tons of aid from the World Health Organization flew into Iran from the United Arab Emirates.

The WHO said a team of experts flew into Tehran Monday evening to help local health workers respond to the outbreak and deliver medical supplies. It added a WHO worker in Iran was sick with the virus as well.

Meanwhile, France, Germany and the United Kingdom said they would urgently fly laboratory tests for the virus into Iran, as well as protective body suits and gloves. They also offered close to 5 million euros ($5.5 million) in financial support.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif thanked those donating supplies and said Tehran still needed protective gear, ventilators and test kits.

While Iran has closed schools and universities to stop the spread of the virus, major Shiite shrines have remained open despite civilian authorities calling for them to be closed. The holy cities of Mashhad and Qom in particular, both home to shrines, have been hard-hit by the virus. Shiites often touch and kiss shrines as a sign of their faith. Authorities have been cleaning the shrines with disinfectants.

Police have arrested one man who posted a video showing himself licking the metal enclosing the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, the most-important Shiite saint buried in the country, according to reports by semiofficial news agencies. In the video, the man said he licked the metal to “allow others to visit the shrine with peace of mind.”

Meanwhile Monday, the virus outbreak saw itself dragged into the yearslong boycott of Qatar by four Arab nations over a political dispute.

A prominent columnist at Dubai’s government-owned Al-Bayan newspaper on Twitter falsely called the virus as being a plot by Qatar to hurt the upcoming Expo 2020 world’s fair in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Noura al-Moteari later described the tweet as “satire” to The Associated Press after it gained widespread attention.

The Dubai Media Office similarly described the tweet as being written in a “cynical style” while distancing the Arabic-language daily from al-Moteari.

“Noura is a freelance writer and is not an employee of Al-Bayan nor does she represent the publication’s views,” it told the AP.

The tweet comes after Qatar expressed disappointment Sunday that nearly all of its Gulf neighbors snubbed invitations to attend the weekend peace signing ceremony between the U.S. and the Taliban.

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.

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