Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei hypothesized that the US created COVID-19 to poison Iranians and refused American medical aid to contain the virus. He claimed Sunday that COVID-19 "is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians" and any American medical personnel ostensibly sent to help may only want to "see the effect of the poison they have produced in person." President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech Monday that the American offer to help "is the biggest lie in the history" and, "if they want to help Iran, all they need to do is to lift sanctions." Last month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, "Humanitarian assistance to push back against the coronavirus in Iran is something the United States of America fully supports." However, Pompeo did not offer specifics and the nature of the assistance rejected by Tehran is unclear.
State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus on Sunday expressed America's dismay at France releasing from custody Jalal Rohollahnejad, the subject of a US extradition request related to the exportation to Iran of equipment with military applications in violation of US sanctions.
As oil and gas revenue account for 60 percent of the state budget and 94 percent of total sales abroad, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune Sunday responded to cratering oil prices by ordering the government to cut public spending by 30 percent through delaying state projects, suspending study and service contracts with foreign firms, and state energy firm Sonatrach reducing planned investment from $14 billion to $7 billion. To shore up foreign exchange reserves, he also mandated decreasing imports from $41 billion to $31 billion.
As part of Ankara's ongoing suppression of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which it accuses of links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorist group, Turkish authorities arrested another five HDP mayors and co-mayors in four municipalities. To promote gender equality, in addition to the directly elected mayor, the HDP selects a co-mayor of the opposite gender from among elected council members. The central government only recognizes the directly elected mayor. So far, Turkey has replaced 36 HDP mayors elected in the March 2019 local elections and detained 27 mayors and co-mayors.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu accused some protective mask producers of hoarding to increase profit and threatened nationalization of any firm that does not sign a contract with the Health Ministry to sell their masks to the government.
A Houthi appellate court Sunday upheld the death sentence against Hamed bin Haydara, a Baha'i leader charged with being an Israeli spy. Like their Iranian patrons, the Houthis ruthlessly persecute Baha'is, arbitrarily arresting many on trumped up charges of apostasy and espionage. Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi movement, delivered an April 2018 speech that branded the Baha'is infidels and posited, "Those who destroy the faith in people are no less evil and dangerous than those who kill people with their bombs."
The Knesset voted Monday night on the composition of the Arrangements Committee, which establishes parliamentary committees and assigns their members. After all of the MKs from the pro-Netanyahu bloc boycotted the vote, the Knesset voted 61-0 to create a 17-member committee headed by Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn and consisting of eight MKs from Prime Minister Netanyahu's right-wing, religious bloc and nine from the anti-Netanyahu bloc.
Earlier Monday, Israel's High Court of Justice ruled that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein must hold a vote on electing a new Knesset speaker by Wednesday. However, Likud colleagues, Justice Minister Amir Ohana and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin urged Edelstein to reject the ruling, which conflicts with the opinion of Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who told the High Court on Sunday that replacing a speaker before the formation of new government could paralyze the parliament. On the other hand, Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called on Edelstein to respect the High Court's ruling. As soon as Blue and White gains control of the Knesset speakership, it wants to introduce legislation that would make Netanyahu ineligible to serve as prime minister and Gideon Sa'ar unsuccessfully challenged Netanyahu in last year's Likud primary. Members of the pro-Netanyahu bloc's parties Sunday signed a pledge that ruled out a unity government with Blue and White if it attempts "to oust the incumbent speaker before a viable government emerges."
The Waqf that administers the Al-Aqsa Mosque announced Sunday its decision to suspend prayers until further notice, starting Monday morning, because of COVID-19. This is the first time that the mosque's administrators have closed it to the public since 1967.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani ordered the delivery to the Gaza Strip over the next six months of $150 million worth of aid, part of which is to cover efforts to combat COVID-19, after Gaza confirmed its first two cases. It is suspected that they were infected at a Tablighi Jamaat mass gathering in Pakistan, attended by 250,000 people, despite Pakistani government warnings that the event risked spreading the disease. UNRWA will suspend food aid in Gaza until a delivery mechanism less likely to spread COVID-19 among staff and beneficiaries is established.
The Finance Ministry announced on Monday that to protect its foreign currency reserves, which fell to about $20 billion earlier this month, Lebanon will halt paying all maturing Eurobonds in foreign currencies, which are estimated to be worth about $30 billion and mature through 2037. On March 7, Lebanon defaulted on a $1.2 billion Eurobond that matured on March 10.
Unknown gunmen Sunday assassinated former South Lebanon Army (SLA) member Antoine al-Hayek inside his grocery store in the southern village of Miye ou Miye. This occurred three days after Beirut released Lebanese-American Amer Fakhoury, who was detained for abuses committed decades ago at the Israel-aligned SLA's Khiam prison. Like Fakhoury, al-Hayek reportedly served as a warden at Khiam prison. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah strongly denounced Fakhoury's release.
The Supreme Judicial Council of Iraq challenged President Barham Salih's authority to nominate lawmaker Adnan al-Zurufi as prime minister-designate. According to the council's president, Fayeq Zeidan, the Iraqi constitution bars the president from appointing a prime minister-designate without first securing the approval of the designate's parliamentary bloc. Pro-Tehran lawmakers oppose al-Zurufi's nomination because of his close relations with the US, dating back to Paul Bremer appointing him governor of Najaf Governorate in May 2004.
After Syria confirmed its first case of COVID-19 Sunday, it closed its borders and Damascus International Airport to commercial air traffic. Syrians rushed to stock up on food and fuel Monday in anticipation of a lockdown. Despite earlier pleas for assistance, the country only received its first shipment of protective gear and equipment from the World Health Organization last Tuesday.
Micah Levinson is a Washington, DC resident fellow at the Middle East Forum.