How online sales cushioned coronavirus’ blow to Middle East art markets

The global art market, which has an annual worth of $64.1 billion according to Swiss multinational investment bank UBS, had been growing steadily in recent years until the coronavirus outbreak forced galleries to close, stopping sales and exhibitions. (Supplied)
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The global art market, which has an annual worth of $64.1 billion according to Swiss multinational investment bank UBS, had been growing steadily in recent years until the coronavirus outbreak forced galleries to close, stopping sales and exhibitions. (Supplied)
Sherazade Mami, a 28-year-old Tunisian professional dancer and performer at the Caracalla dance theatre and a teacher at the Caracalla dance school, practices while wearing a surgical mask on the roof of her apartment building in the suburb of Dekwaneh on the eastern outskirts of Lebanon's capital Beirut on April 4, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
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Sherazade Mami, a 28-year-old Tunisian professional dancer and performer at the Caracalla dance theatre and a teacher at the Caracalla dance school, practices while wearing a surgical mask on the roof of her apartment building in the suburb of Dekwaneh on the eastern outskirts of Lebanon's capital Beirut on April 4, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 23 January 2021

How online sales cushioned coronavirus’ blow to Middle East art markets

The global art market, which has an annual worth of $64.1 billion according to Swiss multinational investment bank UBS, had been growing steadily in recent years until the coronavirus outbreak forced galleries to close, stopping sales and exhibitions. (Supplied)
  • COVID-19 containment measures have forced galleries and auction houses to embrace digital technologies 
  • Sotheby’s and Christie’s both report uptick in digital sales, even as coronavirus drives down the market 

DUBAI: Creative industries the world over have suffered under COVID-19 containment measures, which have led to event cancellations and loss of income for artists and venues. Although community-based initiatives in the Middle East have helped art-world professionals weather the worst of the pandemic’s financial blows, the art market itself has been forced to adapt to strange new circumstances.

The global art market, which has an annual worth of $64.1 billion according to Swiss multinational investment bank UBS, had been growing steadily in recent years until the coronavirus outbreak forced galleries to close, stopping sales and exhibitions, and ate into the spending power of collectors.

Indeed, according to “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Gallery Sector” report published by UBS and Art Basel, which surveyed 795 galleries and 360 collectors from the US, UK and Hong Kong, the pandemic cut modern and contemporary gallery sales by 36 percent, with a median decline of 43 percent compared with the first six months of 2019.




With restrictions on movement and lockdowns forcing the closure of their venues, gallerists were forced to come up with new ways to sell their art and promote their artists, including virtual fairs. (Supplied)

The smallest galleries, with a turnover of less than $500,000, reported the biggest decline in sales, with many forced to downsize and lay off staff. The findings appear to mirror a drop in sales across many luxury goods industries over the course of the year.

With restrictions on movement and lockdowns forcing the closure of their venues, gallerists were forced to come up with new ways to sell their art and promote their artists, including virtual fairs. Although gallerists have their reservations about the efficacy of virtual fairs, it does seem they are here to stay for the foreseeable future — at least until more in-person events can be held safely.

READ MORE: How artists in coronavirus-hit Middle East found strength in solidarity 

The auction world, on the other hand, has not seen sales significantly dented by the shift to digital. Sellers remain eager to shed their valuables and buyers are as hungry as ever.

For instance, at Sotheby’s online contemporary art sale at the end of June, buyers paid top dollar for a number of pieces. A Jean Michel Basquiat drawing sold for $15 million and a Francis Bacon triptych went for almost $85 million.

In the Middle East auction world, sentiments were also positive. In 2020, 52 percent of Sotheby’s MENA-related auctions came from online-only sales — a percentage based on six online and two live auctions. By comparison, there were seven live and no online auctions in 2019 and five live and no online auctions in 2018.




In 2020, 52 percent of Sotheby’s MENA-related auctions came from online-only sales — a percentage based on six online and two live auctions. (Supplied)

“That is not to say that there wasn’t plenty of online bidding and buying in these sales,” Edward Gibbs, Sotheby’s chairman of the Middle East and India, told Arab News. “But 2020 has been a year of fundamental change, which will have lasting effects moving forward.”

The process of adoption of digital modes had already begun in earnest, but truly came into its own with the onset of the pandemic. “The art market has historically been slow to embrace e-commerce; however, findings indicate that this has changed in the face of the crisis,” the Art Basel and UBS report said.

Indeed, in the first half of 2020, online sales accounted for 37 percent of galleries’ total sales — up from 10 percent in 2019. Of the collectors surveyed for the report, 85 percent or more said they had visited online viewing rooms for galleries or fairs, with just under half of them having used these platforms to finalize a purchase.

Some 66 percent of galleries surveyed anticipated that online sales in the gallery sector would further increase in 2021.

INNUMBERS

Art market

* $64.1bn Annual value of global art market.

* 36% Decline in gallery sales vis-a-vis first 6 months of 2019.

* 52% Online-only sales’ share of Sotheby’s MENA auctions in 2020.

“Among the many positive learnings to take into the new year include the importance of digital innovation and the irrepressible power of art and rare objects,” said Gibbs.

“In terms of technology, Sotheby’s has spent the past few years developing its own online sales platform, meaning that when coronavirus hit, we were able swiftly to scale up operations and bring new categories, never included online before, into an ever-broader range of offerings.”

Middle Eastern clients have always been among their most tech-savvy, he says.

“We held our inaugural online sale out of Dubai, as well as our first ever online sale of modern and contemporary Arab and Iranian art,” Gibbs said.

“Even in more traditional markets, such as with Islamic art for instance, this has also been the case. In our most recent Arts of the Islamic World and India live sale, over half of bidders who participated in the sale transacted online.”




Abdulrahman Al-Soliman’s, Untitled (1981) worth between an estimated $61,500 to $75,200. (Supplied)

The sentiment is shared at Christie’s. “There’s a very healthy uptick in online sales,” Caroline Louca-Kirkland, managing director of Christie’s Middle East, told Arab News. “We saw a large number of new registrants or clients that we didn’t have before that came through the online portal.”

In Nov. 2020, Christie’s Middle East celebrated its 15th autumn sale season with three online auctions. One of them was ‘We Are All Beirut’ — a charity initiative to provide relief and support to the arts community in the Lebanese capital following the Aug. 4 port explosion. The event raised over $680,000 to help rebuild the city’s art and cultural community, including Beirut’s historic Sursock Museum.

“Having online auctions without viewings during a lockdown and travel bans was challenging, but we did see some positive results,” Louca-Kirkland said. “We broke the record for Samia Halaby ($542,000) and achieved an impressive ($406,000) for a 1982 work by the late Moroccan master Mohamed Melehi. Additionally, we saw a record for Ranya Sarakbi’s Ouroboros ($406,000) in our inaugural design section.”

Christie’s saw great interest from collectors in Lebanon for its Beirut charity sale. “However, controls on overseas money transfers from Lebanon prevented collectors in Beirut from being able to participate in the auction,” Louca-Kirkland said.

“The Lebanese art market is suffering from the current banking restrictions and its political situation. Equally, the continued sanctions and other geopolitical hurdles have affected the Iranian market.”




A highly important Mamluk gilded and enamelled glass flask from Syria dated to the 14th century, worth up to an estimated $684,000. (Supplied)

In other parts of the Middle East the market is more promising. “There is still a healthy art market, in particular we are seeing a growing appetite for North African art, and new buyers coming in through the online platform,” she said. Nevertheless, “we need to support the Iranian and Lebanese art markets during these times.”

Christie’s Middle East intends to hold its annual art sale in October in London.

Although online platforms have been widely used during the pandemic, collectors have indicated they are not their preferred means to interact with artists and galleries.

Asked by the Art Basel and UBS survey how they would prefer to view art, 70 percent opted for attending a physical or offline exhibition or fair, versus 30 percent who preferred to use online viewing rooms or other online platforms.

Despite ongoing restrictions, some 82 percent of collectors said they plan to attend exhibitions, art fairs and events sometime in the next 12 months. Digital formats may have gained ground during the pandemic, but it would be wrong to predict the demise of real-world galleries and auctions any time soon.

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage

How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage
Updated 02 March 2021

How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage

How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage
  • Deaths of 13 hostages held by the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Gara region came to light after Turkish airstrikes
  • President has used the incident to whip up nationalistic fervor and dial up pressure on opposition parties

ERBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN: In the immediate aftermath of a failed cross-border, hostage rescue attempt earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened further military action against Kurdish fighters abroad and ratcheted up the rhetoric against his secularist opponents at home.

Erdogan’s latest foray against the PKK, an armed group fighting for greater political and cultural rights for Kurds in Turkey, has quickly expanded into a fresh crackdown on the pro-Kurdish HDP political party as well as a war of words with Washington over its ado-hoc alliance with a Syrian Kurdish PKK affiliate in the fight against Daesh.

It all began on February 13, when Turkey launched a raid against the PKK in the Gara region of Iraqi Kurdistan. After clashes, 13 Turkish citizens, most of them police officers and soldiers in PKK captivity since 2015 and 2016, were found dead.

Ankara said the PKK executed the hostages, but the group said Turkish airstrikes on the cave complex during the operation caused their deaths. (AFP)

Ankara said the PKK executed the hostages, but the group said Turkish airstrikes on the cave complex during the operation caused their deaths. Even as many Turks cast doubt on the government’s version of the events, security agencies arrested more than 700 people, including members of the HDP accused by Erdogan of being “official terrorist accomplices.”

Using the same political logic, Erdogan also accused the US of supporting terrorism. “What kind of NATO alliance is this? … They (the Americans) still act with terrorists,” he said on February 22, referring to US alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) group in the campaign against Daesh in northeast Syria. The leading political entity in northeast Syria is the Kurdish PYD, which was founded as the Syrian branch of the PKK.

Many analysts view the combination of the crackdown at home and the outburst against the US as a cynical attempt by Erdogan to divert attention away from the bloody outcome of the hostage-rescue operation.

The developments also come as the Turkish people continue to struggle financially, student frustrations spill over into violence, and the country's management of the coronavirus crisis is rated a lowly 74th out of 98 by the Lowy Institute's COVID Performance Index.

In addition to Iraqi Shiite militia groups, many of them backed by Iran, PKK affiliates present in Sinjar will almost certainly oppose a Turkish military operation there. (AFP)

“Erdogan and the Turkish government do not view the hostage-rescue operation as a failure,” Emily Hawthorne, Stratfor Senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at RANE, told Arab News. “The whipping up of patriotic fervour and the crackdown on the HDP are a familiar tactic employed by Erdogan to drum up support of his nationalist base for anti-PKK operations.”

She said the mileage Erdogan could get out of the crisis was not unlimited. “If the PKK did in fact kill the hostages, it will help build support at home in Turkey for more anti-PKK operations abroad and might strengthen Ankara case for more leeway in its Iraqi operations," Hawthorne said. “But it won’t help much with negative Iraqi public opinion vis-a-vis the operations.”

Clashes between Turkey and the PKK in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast markedly decreased in 2020, compared with the years when the Turkish-PKK conflict (which began in 1984) flared following the collapse of a ceasefire in July 2015. Fighting now takes place mostly in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Of late, Erdogan has been threatening new cross-border offensives against the PKK in Iraq, including against its Yazidi affiliates in the Sinjar area. In January, Turkish officials met with the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leadership and discussed, among other things, removing the PKK from that region.

However, in addition to PKK affiliates, Iraqi Shiite militia groups, many of them backed by Iran, are present in Sinjar and will almost certainly oppose a Turkish military operation there.

Under the circumstances, Hawthorne doubts that Erdogan can effectively invoke the deaths of those Turkish hostages to win some support from the Biden administration for another bloody offensive against the PKK.

“The Turkish government has tried and failed for years to appeal to the US government regarding its concerns about the PKK,” she said. “It is unlikely that the US will become softer towards Turkey because of one particularly difficult and deadly operation in a decades-long struggle.”

More generally, the Turkish government has given repeated warnings of operations against the PKK. But if fresh incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, or even a new foray into Sinjar, happen, Hawthorne anticipates that the “further south the operations are, the more complicated the issue will be with the Iraqi government.”

Her views are echoed by Kurdish analyst Gunes Murat Tezcur, the Jalal Talabani Chair and Professor at the University of Central Florida, who believes the failed Gara operation is unlikely to “have any influence over the Biden administration’s current policy towards Turkey, which is characterized by a divergence of interests at multiple levels.”

These include US opposition to Turkey’s procurement of Russian S-400 air defense missiles and Turkey’s opposition to American cooperation with the SDF in Syria. Furthermore, Tezcur said it is an indisputable fact that the Gara raid was a failure since it led to the deaths of all the hostages.

“The contrast with a successful rescue operation, such as the one conducted by Israel at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976, is instructive in this regard,” he told Arab News, adding that one of the Gara raid’s negative outcomes is that Erdogan will not be able to “score any political points domestically.”

Erdogan has been threatening new cross-border offensives against the PKK in Iraq, including against its Yazidi affiliates in the Sinjar area. (AFP)

Even so, the opposition cannot hold the President Erdogan accountable for the loss of Turkish lives in view of “the prevailing power asymmetry” in Turkey, arising from his government’s domination over the media and the weakened state of parliament.

Analysts also say Erdogan’s relentless hounding of the HDP is part of a strategy, in play since 2015, of demonizing and criminalizing its leadership by equating it with the outlawed PKK and denying it autonomy as a political party.

“That strategy, which has had its ebbs and downs, has been very consistent for the last several years,” Tezcur said. “It keeps the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), the junior partner of the ruling coalition, content, and aims to drive a wedge between the HDP and other Turkish opposition parties.”

He also noted that the HDP has become more dispensable for the government since the Turkish military and security forces have established stronger military leverage over the PKK in recent years, at least partially through technological developments such as the use of sophisticated and lethal armed drones.

“The government feels that it no longer needs the messenger/mediating role of the HDP given its relentless military operations that significantly limit the PKK’s room for maneuver,” Tezcur said.

While he foresees more Turkish incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan aimed at PKK bases throughout this year, he doubts that the Turkish military will open a new front by launching an unprecedented ground assault on Sinjar.

The Turkish government has given repeated warnings of operations against the PKK. (AFP)

At least three factors have led Tezcur to this conclusion. First and foremost is the presence of Iraqi military and Shiite militia groups in the Yazidi homeland.

Then there is the “considerable international concern and sympathy” for the beleaguered Yazidis, who were subjected to a vicious campaign of genocide by Daesh in 2014.

Finally, the distance from the border would make logistical support for a ground operation considerably more difficult for the Turkish army.

Among those who view the arrests of HDP members as Erdogan’s way of shifting blame for the Gara raid failure is Mohammed Salih, a Kurdish affairs analyst and doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

The actions of Erdogan “reveal the impunity, at both the domestic and international levels, with which he can behave in an authoritarian way,” Salih told Arab News.

“The Turkish leader will certainly continue military incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan because foreign operations are now a sure way for him to deflect attention from the many problems at home.”

As for the Biden administration, Salih said it “has already made clear, with its silence over the mass arrests, and the violations of Kurdish rights in Turkey in general, that the human and democratic rights of the Kurdish people in Turkey are practically of no value.”

Twitter: @pauliddon
 

 

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Egypt becomes first MENA country to launch Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator

Egypt becomes first MENA country to launch Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator
Updated 02 March 2021

Egypt becomes first MENA country to launch Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator

Egypt becomes first MENA country to launch Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator
  • Partnership enables Egypt to highlight development stories, promote empowerment

CAIRO: Egypt has launched the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator, the first institutional cooperation between Cairo and the World Economic Forum, which will advance women’s economic empowerment efforts.

In a statement, Minister of International Cooperation Rania Al-Mashat said that the partnership enables Egypt to use the forum’s global presence to tell development stories, promote the empowerment of women, and exchange ideas with international partners.

She said that Egypt is the first country in Africa and the MENA region to launch the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. The initiative will focus on achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) concerned with gender equality to enhance women’s economic empowerment.

It will reduce the gender gap in the labor market and change stereotypes surrounding women.

The ministry has dedicated $82 million for about 13 projects to achieve the SDGs associated with the empowerment of women. The dedicated SDGs fund will also spend $3.3 billion implementing 34 projects to close the gender gap in various sectors such as education and health.

Al-Mashat said that the launch of the bridging the gender gap incentive reflects government efforts and the country’s commitment to take measures that ensure women play their role in development.

The minister said that several sectors of Egyptian society are working on a three-year time frame to reduce economic gaps between the genders and empower women.

The executive plan includes supporting the representation of women at senior levels of company management, reducing the difficulties women face in balancing their work with childcare responsibilities, and providing women with skills, experiences and scholarship opportunities in fields where they are typically underrepresented.
 


US urges Houthis to ‘match Saudi commitment to ending Yemen war’

US urges Houthis to ‘match Saudi commitment to ending Yemen war’
Updated 02 March 2021

US urges Houthis to ‘match Saudi commitment to ending Yemen war’

US urges Houthis to ‘match Saudi commitment to ending Yemen war’
  • Halting Marib attack is ‘necessary first step’
  • Kingdom pledges $430m at UN donor conference

NEW YORK, AL-MUKALLA: Saudi Arabia is “committed and eager” to find a way to end the war in Yemen and Iran-backed Houthi militias should do the same, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday.

“The necessary first step is to stop their offensive against Marib, a city where a million internally displaced people live, and to join the Saudis and the government in Yemen in making constructive moves toward peace,” Blinken said.
Speaking after a visit to the region by his Yemen envoy Tim Lenderking, Blinken told a UN humanitarian aid conference: “He reports that the Saudis and the Yemen government are committed and eager to find a solution to the conflict. We call on the Houthis to match this commitment.”
Monday’s donor conference raised $1.7 billion, less than half the $3.85 billion the UN was seeking for 2021 to avert a large-scale famine. Among the commitments were $430 million from Saudi Arabia, $191 million from the US, $230 million from the UAE and $240 million from Germany.
“Millions of Yemeni children, women and men desperately need aid to live. Cutting aid is a death sentence,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.
“The best that can be said about today is that it represents a down-payment. I thank those who did pledge generously, and I ask others to consider again what they can do to help stave off the worst famine the world has seen in decades.”
The amount raised “does not solve the problem,” UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said. “It’s going to be impossible with such limited resources to prevent a large-scale famine.
“We are at a crossroads with Yemen. We can choose the path to peace or let Yemenis slide into the world’s worst famine for decades. An adequately funded aid operation will prevent the spread of famine and create the conditions for lasting peace. If you’re not feeding the people, you’re feeding the war.”
In Yemen, local health officials said they hoped the new funds would be directed to the health sector.
Dr. Ahmed Mansour, a health official in the southern city of Taiz, told Arab News that health facilities were in desperate need of funds and medical supplies to fight off a new wave of coronavirus.
“We are in need of ventilators, drugs and personal protective equipment, and renovating health buildings,” he said.


US envoy to Yemen Lenderking meets Kuwaiti foreign minister

US envoy to Yemen Lenderking meets Kuwaiti foreign minister
Updated 02 March 2021

US envoy to Yemen Lenderking meets Kuwaiti foreign minister

US envoy to Yemen Lenderking meets Kuwaiti foreign minister
  • Lenderking was visiting Kuwait as part of an official tour of the region
  • He praised Kuwait’s contributions to restore security and safety to Yemen

LONDON: Kuwait’s Foreign Minster Sheikh Ahmed Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah met Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen on Monday, the Kuwait News Agency reported.
Lenderking, who is touring the region, praised Kuwait for its political and humanitarian contributions to the efforts to restore security and safety to Yemen. He also briefed the minister on the latest developments in the crisis.
Sheikh Ahmad reiterated Kuwait’s desire to do all that it can to help and support the people of Yemen, and to assist with efforts to reach a political solution that restores the nation’s security and stability. He added that his country also supports the role and work of the US and its envoy as part of the efforts to end the crisis.
Lenderking said Washington will continue to put pressure on the Houthi militia to halt attacks on civilian areas. He again condemned the repeated assaults by the Iran-backed group on targets in Saudi Arabia which, he said, “is a direct threat to Gulf and Arab national security.”


Footage emerges of Iranian missile attack on US troops

Footage emerges of Iranian missile attack on US troops
Updated 02 March 2021

Footage emerges of Iranian missile attack on US troops

Footage emerges of Iranian missile attack on US troops
  • Soldiers describe damage inflicted by bombardment following assassination of Qassem Soleimani
  • Washington had ‘retaliation plan’ in case of American casualties: Commander of US forces in Mideast

LONDON: Footage has emerged of an Iranian missile attack on a US airbase in Iraq last year that could have brought the two countries to the brink of war.

On Jan. 8 last year, 11 missiles, each thought to have been carrying 1,000-pound warheads, hit Al-Asad airbase, which was home to some 2,000 US troops at the time.

The incident followed the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, by a US drone in Baghdad on Jan. 3.

That strike was ordered after a spate of incidents targeting American personnel and facilities by Iran-backed forces in Iraq, culminating in an assault on the US Embassy in Baghdad on Dec. 31, 2019.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US forces in the Middle East, told American TV network CBS that more than 100 troops suffered severe brain injuries due to the attack. He said there was a “retaliation plan” in place in the event that any US personnel were killed.

Half the personnel and most of the aircraft were evacuated from the base before the attack, with McKenzie saying if that had not been done in time, “I think we might have lost 20 or 30 airplanes and we might have lost 100 to 150 US personnel. We had a plan to retaliate if Americans had died.”

When the retaliation for Soleimani’s assassination came, McKenzie was stationed in Florida and monitored the attack remotely, joined by then-President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

McKenzie said: “I’ve never been on one (call) like this where real missiles (were) being fired at our forces and where I thought the risks were so high.”

An intelligence officer reportedly told senior figures that the “intention is to level this base and we may not survive.” The missiles left vast craters and destroyed entire buildings.

Maj. Alan Johnson prepared a farewell video message for his son, urging him to “be strong” and to look after his mother, believing he might not survive the night.

He described the impact that the missiles had on detonation as being “like a freight train,” telling CBS: “Words can’t even describe the amount of energy that is released by these missiles.”

He added that he and 40 other men at one point sought refuge in a bunker designed to house 10 people from much smaller ordinance blasts. “The fire was just rolling over the bunkers, you know, like 70 feet in the air,” he said.

Sgt. Kimo Keltz, who was stationed inside a guard post to fend off any possible attack by ground troops during the missile barrage, said: “We got down and we protected our vital organs, our heads, and we waited. One of the closest (missiles) that had hit directly near us actually lifted my body about two inches off the ground.”

Despite no fatalities, hundreds of troops started reporting headaches and other side effects, including vomiting, in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Keltz described a two-week long concussion he suffered as being like “someone hitting me over the head with a hammer over and over and over.”

Johnson was one of 29 soldiers awarded purple hearts for courage during the attack, but sustained severe head trauma that still affects him today.

“Headaches every day, horrible tinnitus or ringing in the ears, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I still have nightmares,” he said.

Despite the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic since the exchange of hostilities, and a change of US leadership, tensions between Tehran and Washington remain high.

Last week, US President Joe Biden launched an attack on pro-Iran militants on the Syrian-Iraqi border following an attack on the largest American base in Iraq on Feb. 15 by Tehran-backed forces.