Mar 5, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World! Hope you’re easing into a wonderful weekend.

  • Tonight’s global tour is 1,504 words (6 minutes).
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1 big thing: Iran’s clampdown on coronavirus news

Taking precaution in Tehran. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty

Iran’s coronavirus outbreak has reached the upper echelons of power, and ordinary citizens fear that the information filtering down can’t be trusted.

Why it matters: Iran has the largest coronavirus outbreak outside of China, with 3,513 confirmed cases and 107 deaths. But experts fear the real numbers are much higher, and that the government’s instinct to control information and prevent fear undermined hopes of containing it.

Flashback: When coronavirus reached Iran, apparently via a businessman traveling from China, top officials including President Hassan Rouhani insisted life would swiftly return to normal.

  • Quarantines were mocked, elections went ahead and medical workers were reportedly reprimanded for wearing masks — all in the name of preserving public calm.

Flash forward: The list of those infected now includes 23 members of parliament, a vice president and the deputy health minister.

  • A top adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei died of the virus, as did a former ambassador to the Vatican.

State of play: As pressure grew, the government belatedly took action.

  • Friday prayers were canceled across major cities for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
  • Schools are closed at least for the next two weeks, and public gatherings are discouraged. 54,000 prisoners have been released to avert contagion in Iran's prison.
  • One plan under discussion would see some 300,000 militia members dispatched to test for the virus and disinfect homes, though experts caution that could spread the virus rather than containing it.
  • But, but, but: The holy city of Qom, the epicenter of the outbreak, remains open to pilgrims. Some have chosen to travel to shrines there — even “licking the gold-plated lattice windows” — to show their faith that god will protect them, the FT reports.

Information is still being tightly controlled.

  • Medical workers contacted by the NY Times describe security agents inside hospitals warning employees not to discuss shortages of supplies or deaths from the virus.
  • One doctor based in the U.S. said colleagues in Iran had been forced to misreport causes of death for people who appeared to have coronavirus.
  • “By turning this into a national security issue, they are putting more pressure and stress on doctors and medical teams and creating an environment of chaos and fear,” a pathologist in Tehran said.

The big picture: No one knows how widely the coronavirus has spread in Iran, but based on data from hospitals in Tehran leaked to the Washington Post, epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite estimated that there were now 28,000 cases.

  • Other estimates are lower, but still greatly exceed the official total.

The bottom line: “The more the officials are scared of scaring people, the more the virus will spread and the country will be further paralyzed,” a doctor in Khuzestan province told the FT.

2. Deals come together, and fall apart

Erdoğan (L) meets Putin today in Moscow. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

At the heart of the world's most pressing geopolitical crises are deals that are coming under immense pressure, if not collapsing entirely.

The big picture: Here's a look at how four high-stakes diplomatic pacts are faring, from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to the recent U.S.-Taliban agreement.

In Iran, U.S. sanctions are making it harder to access emergency medical supplies, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj and Abbas Kebriaeezadeh write in Foreign Policy.

  • Tehran is also moving further beyond the constraints of the 2015 nuclear deal, two years after President Trump withdrew.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said today that the current upsurge in enrichment would have been allowed under the deal in 2031, proving the pact was "short-sighted."
  • Given it's happening now, Trump's critics argue leaving the deal was, itself, short-sighted.

In Afghanistan, a surge in violence followed the signing of a U.S.-Taliban withdrawal deal last Saturday. Pompeo said the "unacceptable" attacks could prevent the peace process from moving forward.

  • He called on the Afghan government to stop "posturing" and move ahead with a controversial prisoner swap set to take place before intra-Afghan negotiations begin.
  • Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. diplomat who negotiated the deal with the Taliban, urged both sides "not to lose this historic opportunity."

In Moscow, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a ceasefire today for Idlib, Syria.

  • A 2018 deal between the two collapsed amid a brutal Syrian offensive, backed by Russia, to retake the final rebel strongholds near the Turkish border.
  • The situation escalated perilously after 36 Turkish troops were killed in the fighting. Turkey struck back hard against Syrian forces, without blaming the regime's patron in Moscow.
  • After six hours of talks, Erdoğan got the ceasefire he traveled to Moscow to secure, but the new deal leaves him in effective control of significantly less territory on the Syrian side of the border.

In Europe, leaders have condemned Erdoğan's recent decision to open his borders for migrants and refugees hoping to reach the EU.

  • A 2016 deal saw Brussels agree to send some 6 billion euros in aid to Turkey and promise to resettle some of the 4 million refugees Turkey hosts.
  • Turkey says the EU has not delivered all the aid that was promised and has taken in only an exceptionally slow trickle of refugees.
  • While European leaders are infuriated by Erdoğan's "blackmail," they also clearly failed to formulate any consensus on migration over the past four years and are utterly unprepared for new waves of migrants from Syria and beyond.
3. Middle East: Netanyahu's victory melting away

Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Israel's election committee has published the results of Monday's election showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing bloc with 58 seats — three short of the parliamentary majority needed to form a government.

Why it matters: Worse still for Netanyahu, particularly in the wake of what looked like a remarkable victory, a majority might now be uniting behind an effort to effectively end his political career.

Breaking it down: Netanyahu's Likud Party won the most seats in Monday's election, with 36. Allied right-wing parties won an additional 22.

  • The Blue and White party, led by Netanyahu's centrist rival Benny Gantz, won 33 seats. The liberal Labor Party won 7.
  • The Joint List of predominantly Arab parties had its best-ever showing, winning 15 seats.
  • A nationalist party led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman won 7.

The big picture: Israeli politics have been deadlocked for a year, with Netanyahu and Gantz both failing to form majority governments after two previous elections.

Driving the news: This time could be different. Lieberman now says he will recommend Gantz to form the next government.

  • If the Joint List does the same, that will put 62 seats behind Gantz — at least temporarily — and make it likely that President Reuven Rivlin will offer him a mandate to form a government.
  • Crucially, Gantz would control the parliamentary agenda during that process.

Between the lines: That could leave Netanyahu powerless to stop a bill that would prevent anyone under criminal indictment from forming a government.

  • His corruption trial begins March 17.

Read the full story

4. 14 years of democratic decline

The erosion of democracy around the world continued for the 14th consecutive year, according to an annual report from Freedom House.

Expand chart
Reproduced from Freedom House; Map: Axios Visuals

Why it matters: Year after year, many of the world’s democracies become less democratic. This year’s report draws particular attention to India, where policies targeting Muslims are “threatening the democratic future of a country long seen as a potential bulwark of freedom in Asia and the world.”

Breaking it down:

  • According to the rankings (out of 100), the most free countries in the world are Finland (100), Norway (100), Sweden (100), the Netherlands (99), Luxembourg (98), Uruguay (98) and Canada (98).
  • The least free are Syria (0), Turkmenistan (2), Eritrea (2), South Sudan (2) and North Korea (3).
  • The U.S. (86) ranks 52nd, between Slovakia and Belize.

Go deeper

5. China: Censors tune in for online classes

A professor at Shanghai's Antai College of Economics and Management conducts class online. Photo: Zhang Hengwei/China News Service via Getty Images

Schools and universities across much of China have closed due to the coronavirus outbreak and are being forced to hold classes online for the foreseeable future.

Zoom in: The video platforms are being closely monitored by censors, and some teachers are finding their lessons unceremoniously ended when they hit on controversial topics, AP reports.

  • "Biology courses have been blocked for 'pornographic content.' History and politics classes are among the most vulnerable; subjects such as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward are regularly censored in classes and online discussions."
  • Louis Wang, a middle school history teacher in northeast China, said his workload has ballooned because of an arduous approval process for online classes.
  • “Every word that is spoken in a video recording must be pre-approved,” Wang said.

The bottom line: This is one more way in which the coronavirus is putting China's authoritarian system to the test.

6. News roundup: LGBT rights around the world

1. Vladimir Putin is shaking up Russia's constitution ahead of his expected departure from the presidency (if not from power) in 2024 — but he appears concerned Russians won't bother to turn out to vote on his changes.

  • That seems to be the impetus for a new proposal: a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
  • It's part of a socially conservative package of constitutional amendments on family, religion, and Russian identity and language. Those proposals may indeed drive more people to the polls than Putin's opaque political reforms.
  • Same-sex marriage is already banned in Russia, but Putin has repeatedly turned to anti-LGBT rhetoric and policies as a political tool.

2. Hong Kong's high court ruled Sunday that same-sex couples cannot be rejected for public housing on the basis of their sexual orientation.

  • Officials had argued that because there was a shortage of housing, “ordinary families” should be given priority.

3. Four countries or territories legalized same-sex marriage in 2019: Northern Ireland, Ecuador, Taiwan and Austria.

  • Zoom out: Here's a look at where it's still illegal to be LGBT around the world (orange), and where same-sex marriage and civil unions are legal (purple).
Expand chart
Data: ILGA sexual orientation legal dataset; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
7. Stories we're watching

Waiting for a boat, and a chance to reach Europe, in Edirne, Turkey. Photo: Zan Kose/AFP via Getty

  1. Virus watch: Manufacturing shrinks, oil demand drops, travel tumbles
  2. Scoop: China's WHO alternative
  3. U.S. to approve Israeli annexations if Palestinians don't negotiate
  4. What Kushner told senators about Trump's Middle East peace plan
  5. The debate over U.S. restrictions on Chinese journalists
  6. Fighting Uighur forced labor
  7. ICC allows Afghanistan war crimes investigation


"The relationship I have is very good with the Mullah."
— Trump, following a call with Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund
Dave Lawler