Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says the country’s citizens have made “exemplary” sacrifices in the battle against the deadly coronavirus pandemic that has so far killed at least 1,284 people.
In his televised address on March 20 for the Persian New Year, Khamenei said that “regarding the recent disease — the spread of the coronavirus — the sacrifices made were so exemplary that even foreigners felt obliged to admire them.”
“Primarily, these acts of sacrifice were made by medical groups, physicians, nurses, assistants, managers, and the staff working in hospitals.”
He said Iranians had suffered through a “tumultuous year” that included floods, earthquakes, sanctions, and ended with the coronavirus crisis.
Khamenei urged Iranians to put a difficult year behind them and called on them to display unity for the upcoming year.
The number of infections and the death toll from the coronavirus in the country continues to rise, making for a subdued Norouz celebration of the new year in Iran, the Middle East country hit the hardest by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 10,000 people worldwide.
Authorities recommended that Iranians stay home during the holiday, a time when hundreds of thousands usually travel to be with friends and relatives.
The government has closed schools at all levels, banned sports and cultural events, and curtailed religious activities to try and slow the spread of the virus.
Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi said on state television on March 19 that 149 new deaths had been recorded in the past 24 hours, putting the death toll from the virus at 1,284.
At 18,407, Iran has the third-highest number of registered cases after China and Italy.
Khamenei said the country had made great gains in production in the past year — helped by U.S. sanctions which, he said, forced Iran to become self-sufficient.
U.S. President Donald Trump in May 2018 pulled out of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran signed with six world powers and began reimposing crippling sanctions on Iran.
In addition, the United States and Iran came close to direct armed conflict in a series of events beginning late last year.
After Washington blamed an Iran-backed militia for a strike in Iraq that killed a U.S. contractor, Trump ordered the killing of a top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, in an air strike near Baghdad the following month.
In retaliation, an Iranian ballistic missile strike on an Iraqi air base hosting Western troops left some 110 U.S. troops suffering from traumatic brain injuries.
Khamenei in his speech called the U.S. action a “terrorist crime” and hailed the “martyrdom” of Soleimani.
The year in Iran was also marked by growing numbers of people taking to the streets to rally against the government. Protests erupted on November 15 following a government decision to raise fuel prices, but the demonstrations turned into more widespread protests against the government.
According to Amnesty International, at least 304 people were killed and thousands injured over the next days as authorities crushed the protests. Authorities “arbitrarily” detained thousands of people and subjected some to enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill-treatment, the rights group said.
In his Norouz speech, Iranian President Hassan Rohani hailed the gains he said the country has made in its defense efforts.
He also thanked Iranian doctors and nurses for the efforts they have made to help curtain the coronavirus pandemic and vowed that the country will overcome the crisis.
“Our nation has managed to reach its goals, despite difficulties…. Iran will overcome the coronavirus with unity,” Rohani said.
Despite the dire circumstances caused by the outbreak, many Iranians were angered by the temporary closure of Shi’ite sites, prompting some earlier this week to storm into the courtyards of two major shrines — Mashhad’s Imam Reza shrine and Qom’s Fatima Masumeh shrine.
Crowds typically pray there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, touching and kissing the shrine. That worried health officials, who for weeks ordered Iran’s Shi’ite clergy to close them.