TEHRAN - Iran's president on Sunday lashed out at criticism of its lagging response to the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East as a "political war," saying he had to weigh protecting the economy while tackling the pandemic.
Hassan Rouhani said the government had to consider the effect of mass quarantine efforts on Iran's beleaguered economy, which is under heavy U.S. sanctions. It's a dilemma playing out across the globe, as leaders struggle to strike a balance between containing the pandemic and preventing their economies from crashing.
"Health is a principle for us, but the production and security of society is also a principle for us," Rouhani said at a Cabinet meeting. "We must put these principles together to reach a final decision."
"This is not the time to gather followers," he added. "This is not a time for political war."
Even before the pandemic, Rouhani was under fire for the unraveling of the 2015 nuclear deal he concluded with the United States and other world powers. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement and has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran that prevent it from selling oil on international markets.
State TV on Sunday reported another 123 deaths, pushing Iran's overall toll to 2,640 amid 38,309 confirmed cases.
Most people suffer only minor symptoms, such as fever and coughing, and recover within a few weeks. But the virus can cause severe illness and death, especially in elderly patients or those with underlying health problems.
It is highly contagious, and can be spread by those showing no symptoms.
In recent days, Iran has ordered the closure of nonessential businesses and banned travel between cities. But those measures came long after other countries in the region imposed more sweeping lockdowns. Many Iranians are still flouting orders to stay home in what could reflect widespread distrust of authorities.
Iran has urged the international community to lift sanctions and is seeking a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Elsewhere in the region, Qatar reported its first death from the new coronavirus late Saturday, saying the total number of reported cases there was at least 590.
The tiny, energy-rich nation said it flew 31 Bahrainis stranded in Iran into Doha on a state-run Qatar Airways flight. But since Bahrain is one of four Arab countries that has been boycotting Qatar in a political dispute since 2017, Doha said it could not fly the 31 onward to the island kingdom.
"Bahraini officials have said they will send a flight for them at some undefined point in the future," the Qatari government said in a statement.
Bahrain said it planned a flight Sunday to pick up the stranded passengers. The kingdom said it had its own repatriation flights scheduled for those still stuck in Iran and warned Qatar that it "should stop interfering with these flights."