Iran rejects US virus aid as 15 more deaths raise toll to 92

By: AFP      Published: 04:32 PM, 4 Mar, 2020
Iran rejects US virus aid as 15 more deaths raise toll to 92
Iranians wear protective masks in the capital Tehran. AFP

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday dismissed a US offer to help the Islamic republic fight its coronavirus outbreak, charging that "vicious" American sanctions are depriving the country of medicine.

Iran has scrambled to halt the rapid spread of the virus that has claimed 92 lives out of 2,922 confirmed infections in the past two weeks.

"The number of confirmed new cases in the past 24 hours is 586," health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour told a televised news conference. "Fifteen (people) have unfortunately lost their lives."

Iran has shut schools and universities, suspended major cultural and sporting events, and cut back on work hours.

"Those who have deprived the people of even medicine and food through sanctions, who have done the most vicious things... they appear with a mask of sympathy and say that we want to help the nation of Iran," Rouhani said, in a clear reference to the United States.

US President Donald Trump had said Saturday he was ready to aid Iran with the virus outbreak if the Islamic republic asked for assistance. "Our people know well that you are lying," Rouhani said in response, speaking at the weekly meeting of his cabinet in remarks aired on state television.

Washington pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran in 2018. Humanitarian goods, especially medicine and medical equipment, are technically exempt.

But international purchases of such supplies are forestalled by banks wary of conducting any business with Iran for fear of falling foul of the US sanctions. Rouhani said the US must first lift sanctions blocking medicine purchases to prove its honest intent to help. "This is the first step... to free banking relations for purchasing medicine, transferring medicine and shipping medicine and food," he said.

The provinces of Tehran and Qom were the worst-hit with 253 and 101 new cases of COVID-19 respectively, according to the spokesman. The Shiite holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, is the epicentre of Iran's coronavirus outbreak and where its first deaths were reported on February 19.

Authorities have since been scrambling to halt its rapid spread. Schools have been shut, major cultural and sporting events suspended, and work hours cut back.

But the novel coronavirus is now present in all but one of Iran's 31 provinces, according to the latest figures. The virus has even infected a number of high-profile officials in the country.

The national emergency services chief Pirhossein Kolivand was the latest such infection announced on Tuesday. It came a day after the virus claimed the life of Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a member of the Expediency Council which advises Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.