INDEPENDENT 2024-07-08 08:08:44


Moderate reformist Masoud Pezeshkian wins Iran’s presidential race

After the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, Iranian politician Masoud Pezeshkian wrote that it was “unacceptable in the Islamic Republic to arrest a girl for her hijab and then hand over her dead body to her family”.

Days later, as nationwide protests and a bloody crackdown on all dissent took hold, he warned that those “insulting the supreme leader… will create nothing except long-lasting anger and hatred in the society”.

The stances taken by Mr Pezeshkian, now Iran’s 69-year-old president-elect, highlight the dualities of being a reformist politician within Iran’s Shia theocracy – always pushing for change but never radically challenging the system overseen by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran’s interior ministry said on Saturday: “By gaining a majority of the votes cast on Friday, Pezeshkian has become Iran’s next president.”

After Iran’s 28 June presidential election saw the lowest turnout in history, Mr Pezeshkian won 16.3 million votes against hardliner Saeed Jalili’s 13.5 million votes to clinch Friday’s run-off election. Mr Pezeshkian now must convince a public angered by years of economic pain and bloody crackdowns that he can make the changes he promised.

“We are losing our backing in the society, because of our behavior, high prices, our treatment of girls and because we censor the internet,” Mr Pezeshkian said at a televised debate on Monday night. “People are discontent with us because of our behaviour.”

Mr Pezeshkian has aligned himself with other moderate and reformist figures during his campaign to replace the late President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline protégé of Ayatollah Khamenei killed in a helicopter crash in May. His main advocate has been former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who reached Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that saw sanctions lifted in exchange for the atomic programme being drastically curtailed.

Iranians rushed into the streets in a carnival-like expression of hope that the deal would finally see their country enter the international community. But in 2018, then-president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord, setting in motion a series of attacks across the wider Middle East. Iran now enriches uranium to near-weapons-grade levels while having a large enough stockpile to build several bombs if it chooses.

That, coupled with the bloody crackdown on dissent that followed nationwide protests over Amini’s death and the mandatory hijab, have fueled voters’ disenchantment. Mr Pezeshkian has offered comments suggesting he wants better relations with the West, a return to the atomic accord and less enforcement of the hijab law.

Mr Pezeshkian was born 29 September 1954 in Mahabad in northwestern Iran to an Azeri father and a Kurdish mother. He speaks Azeri and has long focused on the affairs of Iran’s vast minority ethnic groups. Like many, he served in the Iran-Iraq war, sending medical teams to the battlefront.

He became a heart surgeon and served as the head of the Tabriz University of Medical Sciences. However, personal tragedy shaped his life after a 1994 car crash killed his wife, Fatemeh Majidi, and a daughter. The doctor never remarried and raised his remaining two sons and a daughter alone.

Mr Pezeshkian entered politics first as the country’s deputy health minister and later as the health minister under the administration of reformist president Mohammad Khatami.

Almost immediately, he found himself involved in the struggle between hardliners and reformists, attending the autopsy of Zahra Kazemi, a freelance photographer who held both Canadian and Iranian citizenship. She was detained while taking pictures at a protest at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, was tortured and died in custody.

In 2006, Mr Pezeshkian was elected as a politician representing Tabriz. He later served as a deputy parliament speaker and backed reformist and moderate causes, though analysts often described him more as an “independent” than allied with the voting blocs. That independent label also has been embraced by Mr Pezeshkian in the campaign.

Yet Mr Pezeshkian at the same time honored Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, on one occasion wearing its uniform to parliament. He repeatedly criticized the United States and praised the guard for shooting down an American drone in 2019, saying it “delivered a strong punch in the mouth of the Americans and proved to them that our country will not surrender”.

In 2011, Mr Pezeshkian registered to run for president, but withdrew his candidacy. In 2021, he found himself and other prominent candidates barred from running by authorities, allowing an easy win for Raisi.

In this campaign, Mr Pezeshkian’s advocates have sought to contrast him against the “Taliban” policies of Mr Jalili. His campaign slogan is “For Iran”, a possible play on the popular song by the Grammy Award-winning Iranian singer-songwriter Shervin Hajipour called “Baraye,” or “For” in English. Hajipour has been sentenced to more than three years in prison over his anthem for the Amini protests.

Yet Mr Pezeshkian acknowledged the challenge ahead of him, particularly after the low turnout of the first round of voting.

“With all the noisy arguments between me and him, only 40 per cent (of eligible voters) voted,” Mr Pezeshkian said during his final televised debate with Mr Jalili on Tuesday. “Sixty per cent don’t accept us. So people have issues with us.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

Sister of Titan submersible victim ‘furious’ that he took his son

The sister of a billionaire businessman who died in last year’s Titan submersible disaster has said she is “furious” with her brother for bringing his teenage son with him.

Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his 19-year-old son Suleman both lost their lives when the so-called $250,000-a-head Titanic tourist sub suffered a “catastrophic implosion” an hour and 45 minutes into its dive to the Titanic wreck.

The businessman had been “obsessed” with the disaster and his sister said at the time his son was “terrified” at the prospect of the dive, but wanted to please his father.

This claim has been refuted by his mother, Christine, who said the university student wanted to go to the Titanic.

Reflecting on the tragedy a year later, Shadaza’s older sister Amzeh told the New York Post: “I still wake up every morning and it hits me like a ton of bricks that they’re gone.

“There’s nowhere to share the grief, we just have to carry it inside us.”

The Pakistani father and son lost their lives alongside fellow “citizen explorer” British billionaire businessman Hamish Harding, 58, Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77, and OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, 61.

Amzeh, who spent the anniversary of the tragedy with her immediate family in Amsterdam, said others including Christine and Shadaza’s daughter, Alina, had gathered to be together.

“I sent a message to my mother saying how are you, it’s the anniversary, and she informed me that the whole family were together because it’s so difficult to be alone,” Amzeh said.

Both Christine and Alina were on the Titan’s support vessel, the Polar Prince, when the submersible went missing.

This notably happened on Father’s Day, 16 June, and it is believed that this is why Christine gave her ticket to her son so he could mark the occasion with his father.

Amzeh said she was informed about the disaster by her husband after it took the support vessel hours after losing contact with Titan to report its disappearance to the coast guard.

“My first husband gave me a call – I had no idea whatsoever,” she said. “Then I started to realise, ‘Oh my God, they’ve gone on this and it’s gone missing.’”

She reflected on the last message she had received from her teenage nephew.

She added: “It started to kind of make sense that a couple [of] days before that, Suleman had sent me a short text saying, ‘I love you and I miss you’ and offered to come visit.”

Azmeh said she did not have the best relationship with her brother before his death and said she has been left “furious” by his actions with the submersible.

“My brother was passionate about the Titanic. So yeah, great, [he] got to do this. But Suleman, he’s 19,” she said.

“Obviously I miss my brother, my God, I would do anything to bring him back, but I guess the older sister in me is really, really furious with him for taking Sully,” she added, which was Suleman’s nickname.

Her son, Lehhaan, was incredibly close to his cousin and she said he has been profoundly affected by his death. She said he is so traumatised that he had a seizure when he recently attempted to take a boat trip in Greece.

The pair reportedly played video games together until the disaster last June.

“He was very close to Suleman – I think for a few moments he tapped into the fear that he must have felt,” she speculated.

“He just curled up on the floor of the boat and we were holding him in place and he was just shaking. Because it was just too close. It was just too close to the terror that we all know that Suleman must have held.”

Amzeh has now hit out at the company behind the disaster, OceanGate, and like many, has compared it to the Titanic itself.

She was also particularly critical of the company’s CEO, Mr Rush, who like the Titanic captain Edward Smith went down with his ship.

“It was just kind of pretty much just like the Titanic, wasn’t it? It was hubris or arrogance beyond measure,” she said.

“Thinking he [Mr Rush] was amazing. Compared to the ocean, the ocean is a natural force. It’s breathtaking. To have assumed we can take it on.

“I personally don’t get why someone would raise so much money to visit what is in essence a mass grave site. It should be left alone. It should be respected.

“It’s not tourism, it’s voyeurism.”

While the investigation into the disaster is still ongoing, it is thought the Titan’s experimental carbon fibre hull weakened on its repeat dives to the Titanic, culminating in its eventual catastrophic implosion.

It is believed the implosion happened so quickly that the men aboard the Titan would have died instantly and not experienced any pain.

Tesla cools interest in India as Elon Musk seems to focus on China

Tesla’s plan to make a splash in the Indian market appears to have hit a roadblock since Elon Musk abruptly postponed his visit to the country in April and dashed to China instead.

The electric carmaker’s executives have ceased contact with Indian officials, leading them to conclude that Musk does not intend to invest in the country in the near future, Bloomberg reported.

Tesla was reportedly looking at India, the world’s third-largest automobile market, as the next destination for growth.

The company put the plan on hold after the Indian government reportedly insisted that it produce cars locally, just as it does in China. The carmaker would have preferred importing vehicles initially to gauge demand.

Mr Musk had said Tesla would be in India “as soon as humanly possible” after a meeting with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi during his state visit to the US last year. “He really cares about India because he’s pushing us to make significant investments in India, which is something we intend to do. We are just trying to figure out the right timing,” Mr Musk said, calling himself a “fan of Mr Modi”.

“I am confident that Tesla will be in India and will do so as soon as humanly possible.”

The carmaker planned to invest $2 to $3bn and build a new factory in India, Reuters reported in April. Mr Musk was expected to announce the deal after meeting with Mr Modi in April.

But he cancelled the visit. He said “very heavy Tesla obligations require the visit to India be delayed, but I do very much look forward to visiting later this year”.

Just a week later, the mercurial billionaire made an unplanned visit to China.

The visit reportedly helped Tesla clear regulatory roadblocks related to the launch of self-driving software in the country, a crucial market for the company. Mr Musk met Chinese premier Li Qiang and Tesla’s Model 3 and Y vehicles passed the country’s data security requirements soon after.

Now that Tesla has cooled interest in India, officials told Bloomberg that they were looking to domestic car makers for boosting electric vehicle production. But Tesla would still be welcome to avail a new import tax policy if Mr Musk decided to re-engage, they said.

Tesla’s apparent ghosting of India comes just as its Model Y has been made available for government purchase in China, according to state news outlet Paper.cn.

The Model Y, a fully electric compact crossover SUV, has been included in a list of electric and hybrid vehicles that local governments can purchase for use as service cars.

India likely still remains on Mr Musk’s radar. He congratulated Mr Modi after his swearing-in as prime minister for the third time last month.

“Congratulations Narendra Modi on your victory in the world’s largest democratic elections! Looking forward to my companies doing exciting work in India,” he wrote on X.

Mr Modi responded saying “Indian youth, our demography, predictable policies and stable democratic polity will continue to provide the business environment for all our partners”.

India’s electric vehicle market is small but growing. It’s currently dominated by the local carmaker Tata.

Mr Modi’s government is targeting 30 per cent of new cars to be electric by 2030, up from about 2 per cent currently.

In recent years, Mr Musk has opposed India’s high import taxes on electric vehicles and lobbied for change. In March, India’s government introduced a new policy reducing import taxes from as high as 100 per cent to 15 per cent on certain models, provided the carmaker invests at least $500m and establishes a factory in the country.

Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state at risk of ‘genocidal violence’

The Rohingya in Myanmar‘s Rakhine state are at risk of facing “genocidal violence” similar to what the Muslim minority suffered eight years ago, a UN expert has warned.

Thomas Andrews, UN special rapporteur for the crisis in Myanmar, said the situation in Rakhine was “terrifying”, according to AFP.

“For Rohingya people – oppressed, scapegoated, exploited, and stuck between warring parties – the situation carries echoes of the lead-up to genocidal violence in 2016 and 2017,” Mr Andrews told the United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday.

An army crackdown against the Rohingya Muslims in 2017 sent 730,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh. The UN described it at the time as genocidal in intent.

In Rakhine, tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced since the Arakan Army, an armed group of the Rakhine ethnic minority seeking autonomy from the central government, renewed fighting the army late last year.

The attacks last November ended a ceasefire which had largely held since a military coup wrested power from the government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021.

Mr Andrews said the military had been conscripting “thousands of Rohingya youth and mobilising them against the Arakan Army”.

“Even though many Rohingya young men have been taken to the frontlines of the conflict against their will, the potential for retaliation by members of the Arakan community, and a downward spiral of violence, is enormous,” he warned. “Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, have been displaced in Rakhine state.”

Although Rohingya are not eligible for conscription because they are denied citizenship, the military has conscripted more than 1,000 men and boys from the community since February using methods including abduction, threats and false promises of citizenship, according to a report by the Human Rights Watch.

In May, the UN human rights office warned of “frightening and disturbing reports” about fresh violence in Rakhine, pointing to attacks on Rohingya civilians by the military and the Arakan Army.

Liz Throssell, a spokesperson for the UN agency, highlighted the burning of the town of Buthidaung, air strikes, shootings at unarmed fleeing villagers, beheadings and disappearances in the northern part of Rakhine in recent weeks.

The Arakan Army announced in May that it had seized Buthidaung, home to a sizable Rohingya Muslim population in northern Rakhine.

“We are receiving frightening and disturbing reports from northern Rakhine state in Myanmar of the impacts of the conflict on civilian lives and property,” Ms Throssell told a briefing in Geneva.

“Some of the most serious allegations concern incidents of killing of Rohingya civilians and the burning of their property.”

She quoted a survivor saying they saw dozens of dead bodies lying around as they fled Buthidaung and others speaking of abuse and extortion at the hands of the Arakan Army.

The United League of Arakan, the political arm of the Arakan Army, said civilians in the battle zone had taken refuge in areas controlled by its forces, adding that it “has been doing its utmost to safeguard and care for these Internally Displaced Persons as valued citizens, irrespective of race or religion”.

Rohingya activists, however, have blamed the Arakan Army for most of the destruction.

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller previously said Washington was “deeply troubled” by reports of violence in Rakhine and called on the military and armed groups to protect civilians and allow humanitarian access.

“The military’s previous acts of genocide and other crimes against humanity targeting Rohingya, in addition to its history of stoking intercommunal tensions in Rakhine State and elsewhere across the country, underscore the grave dangers to civilians,” he said.

“The current increased violence and intercommunal tensions also raise the risks of further atrocities occurring.”

Boy, 12, dies from rare ‘brain-eating amoeba’ infection in India

A 12-year-old boy in Kerala has died from a rare infection caused by “brain-eating amoeba”.

He’s the third person to have died of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis in the southern Indian state since May, The Hindu reported.

The boy had taken ill after bathing in a pond and was undergoing treatment at a private hospital in Kozhikode . He died on Thursday.

“We identified the infection in tests done in our labs and informed the district’s medical officer who took preventive measures by closing access to the pond where the child had bathed,” an unnamed doctor who treated the boy was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India.

The amoeba, Naegleria fowleri , thrives in warm freshwater and infects humans through the nose.

It has also been found in artificially heated industrial water sources and domestic water supplies.

A five-year-old girl in Malappuram and a 13-year-old girl in Kannur died from the same infection on 21 May and 25 June, respectively.

The state’s health department has advised caution when bathing in stagnant water and emphasised the need for proper chlorination to prevent infection.

“Bathing in stagnant water and diving in water should be avoided as much as possible,” the department said.

“Water in theme parks and swimming pools should be properly chlorinated to ensure that it is clean.”

The infection can destroy brain tissue and cause severe brain swelling.

It is not contagious.

The symptoms include headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. As the condition progresses, patients may also develop a stiff neck, experience confusion, seizures, hallucinations, and potentially slip into a coma.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people with primary amoebic meningoencephalitis “die within 1 to 18 days after symptoms begin”.

“It usually leads to coma and death after five days.”

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