Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims gather as they commemorate the Arbaeen outside of Imam al-Hussein shrine in Karbala, Iraq, November 10, 2017. (Reuters)

October 3, 2020

The first day of October hailed an alarming new stage in Iran’s battle with the coronavirus pandemic as, with 3,825 new cases logged in 24 hours, the country broke its single-day record for new infections. The official recorded death toll also rose by 211 souls to 26,380.

It falls a week before an important date in the Shia calendar: one that some among the devout have taken as a sign. Kazem Sadighi, Tehran’s acting Friday Imam, pronounced the coronavirus a calamity visited upon the world by God and a consequence of “our sins”. “These days and nights,” he intoned, “we must ponder what we have done that at the time Arba’een, the doors of Imam Hossein’s shrine have been closed to us.”

The Shia holy day of Arba’een marks 40 days since the date of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in the Islamic lunar calendar. This year, it falls on October 8, and traditionally would be observed by thousands of Shia pilgrims traveling to Karbala in Iraq to pray at his shrine. But this year, in an effort to halt the spread of coronavirus, the Iraqi government has banned entry by foreign pilgrims.

Pictures and videos have been posted online in recent days showing a number of pilgrims rushing the border with Iraq and clashing with border guards in a bid to reach and enter the shrine. Since then Islamic Republic officials have repeatedly told the people that this year’s Arba’een processions are canceled. Even the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has asked Iranians to stay home.

Land borders between Iraq and Iran have been closed for more than seven months since the outbreak and save for a few exceptions, no traveler is permitted to cross the border between the two countries. Yesterday an Iraqi official reported that 1,500 pilgrims would be allowed into the country, by air, but as yet Iranian authorities have not confirmed the same.

“During Arba’een we have no flights from Iran to Iraq to carry pilgrims,” said Deputy Minister of Roads Touraj Dehghani Zangeneh, citing a decision by the National Coronavirus Taskforce.

Local Authorities Scramble to Block Arba’een Processions Inside Iran

For the time being the road to Iraq for Arba’een ceremonies still seems to be closed – but what about inside Iran?

Also on October 1, various provincial and police officials announced that they would not be letting pilgrims into their cities. Ilam is on the route to the border with Iraq, and Noor Aliyari, commander of Ilam’s police force, announced that the province intends to keep pilgrims out.

“Considering the coronavirus epidemic and the fact that pilgrims are not allowed to cross the border,” he said, “this year we ask the dear people of country to listen to the exalted Leader of the Revolution and keep Arba’een alive in their homes.”

Elsewhere Mohammad Sadegh Basiri, the deputy governor of Kerman province, announced that following a decision by the National Coronavirus Taskforce and on the advice of the Supreme Leader, no Arba’een processions are allowed in the province.

In recent days discussions have taken place around whether to impose new restrictions, fines or even criminal charges to deter individuals from violating health protocols. On October 1, President Rouhani announced that fines would soon be imposed on those who ignored the guidelines in three types of space: “government offices”, “private businesses” and “public places”. The size of the fine, he added, would depend on the type and severity of the violation. The announcement came a day after Anooshirvan Mohseni Bandpey, the governor of Tehran province, had ordered that government institutions in the city of Tehran refuse to serve any visitors not wearing masks.

Some provinces are waiting impatiently for the ministry of interior to allow them to impose a one-week lockdown. “The continuing coronavirus state of red alert in Alborz makes it necessary to impose restrictions for one week, and if people do not cooperate and the situation does not improve, then stricter restrictions shall be imposed,” said Azizollah Shahbazi, the government’s high representative in Alborz province.

Iran Wire

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.