Desperate Iranians turn to graverobbing as economy collapses 

Escalating economic pressure combined with multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran have led to a spate of robberies from royal tombs and widespread looting of Iran’s historical cultural sites. (Wikimedia Commons)
Escalating economic pressure combined with multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran have led to a spate of robberies from royal tombs and widespread looting of Iran’s historical cultural sites. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Updated 28 June 2021

Desperate Iranians turn to graverobbing as economy collapses 

Escalating economic pressure combined with multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran have led to a spate of robberies from royal tombs and widespread looting of Iran’s historical cultural sites. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • One high-profile looter said that royal tombs are ‘openly known and accessible for excavation’
  • Experts suspect that thousands of thefts from heritage sites occur every week

LONDON: Escalating economic pressure combined with multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran have led to a spate of robberies from royal tombs and widespread looting of Iran’s historical cultural sites.

“The graves and mausoleums of our kings are openly known and accessible for excavation,” said one infamous thief, who has adopted an online persona modelled on Agatha Christie’s detective Poirot.

“How a toiling worker became prosperous through digging for gold,” reads another of his Instagram posts.

These sentiments are indicative of a wider trend in Iran; desperate individuals looting the country’s rich cultural past to sustain them in the present.

The UN’s body for world heritage sites, UNESCO, ranks Iran seventh in the world in heritage possession — but the country, facing perennial economic decline, is now plagued by looting and site destruction, according to the UK-based Heritage Management Organization.

“Sanctions on Iran have led to the perfect storm for antiquities looting,” said Leila Amineddoleh, a lawyer specializing in art and heritage.

As the sanctions bite and Iran’s wider economic system breaks down, Amineddoleh explained that “opportunistic individuals turn to archaeological theft and looting.”

She added: “People have treated their cultural heritage as a resource to be extracted.”

According to the UN Office for Drugs and Crime, Iran is particularly susceptible to criminal gangs: “Due to its ancient history, large number of cultural sites and geographic location, the country is vulnerable to looting, trafficking, and smuggling of its cultural property, art and antiquities.”

In the past four months, 22 illegal digs were discovered at Iran’s heritage sites, according to an Iranian state-backed news channel, and last week five men were arrested in the southwest of the country, accused of belonging to a gang of looters. 

Officials have pledged to crack down on looting activity, but experts believe that the practice is now so widespread that it is out of their control.

“Any illegal and unauthorized excavation and metal-detecting activities aimed at pillaging our country’s heritage will be met with the power of the law,” said one colonel. 

There are now regular reports of people dying in cave-ins as they search for loot and, according to Evangelos Kyriakidis, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Kent and founding director of the Heritage Management Organization, these reports are just a snapshot of the wider issue.

“We receive hundreds of reports every week on illicit excavations around the country, which to my mind means there must be thousands occurring because most of them are not reported,” he said.

Referring to treasure hunters such as “Poirot” who post about their exploits for their online followers, Kyriakidis added: “People in that network are becoming audacious.”


French FM applauds Middle East diplomacy, warns of Iranian transgressions

French FM applauds Middle East diplomacy, warns of Iranian transgressions
Updated 21 September 2021

French FM applauds Middle East diplomacy, warns of Iranian transgressions

French FM applauds Middle East diplomacy, warns of Iranian transgressions
  • Le Drian lauds August’s Baghdad Convention but warns Iran has repeatedly breached its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA
  • Minister laments ‘breach of trust’ by the UK and US over scuppering of a French submarine deal with Australia

NEW YORK: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has celebrated progress in diplomacy in the Middle East and promised that France will continue to take an active role in ensuring the region remains stable.

In a wide-ranging press conference held on Monday and attended by Arab News, Le Drian also lamented the recent “breach of trust” by the UK and US over the sale of submarines to Australia.

France had originally been slated to supply submarines to Australia as part of that deal, but Canberra did a U-turn in favor of an agreement with the US and UK, in what some have called an embarrassment for the French.

“In the Middle East, stability and security shall be the heart of our priorities. These require a regional dialogue, including in the unprecedented format of the Baghdad Conference on Aug. 28,” Le Drian said.

The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership brought together many of the key powers in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, and Iran for dialogue aimed at easing security tensions in the region. France also attended the summit and has taken an active role in mediating conflict and disputes in the Middle East, in some form, for centuries.

“It was an exceptional meeting because those who attended were not used to sitting at the same table,” said Le Drian, who is currently in New York for the UN General Assembly’s week of high-level meetings.

“We managed to launch some sort of new spirit and to gather some support for a willingness to reduce regional tensions in an unprecedented format.”

Iran’s presence at the conference, he continued, may be seen as a “positive signal,” but he said that he would convene a meeting of the joint commission of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) because, “regarding Iran, we note that the negotiations were interrupted at the request of Iran and we need to make sure that, this week, we try to launch some positive momentum or negotiations to resume.”

The JCPOA, widely referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, saw heavy restrictions and monitoring placed on Tehran’s nascent nuclear program in return for much-needed sanctions relief. Iran and the US, which also left the deal, have been in negotiations for years over a bilateral return to the deal, but those have stalled in recent months.

“In the meantime, Iran keeps breaching some commitments that they made within the JCPOA,” said Le Drian, who also warned that “time is playing against the potential (nuclear) agreement because, as time goes by, the Iranian authorities are speeding up their nuclear activities.”

The minister also addressed the latest developments in Afghanistan, recently seized by the Taliban after 20 years of US presence in the country.

He said that France and its European partners had sent across a number of “very clear requirements” of the Taliban. Those include allowing people to leave the country if they wish, preventing the country from becoming a haven for terrorists, facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the country, and ensuring the rights of minorities, women, and journalists are upheld.

“Should the Taliban fail to meet these requirements, they will ban themselves from the international community,” Le Drian said.

He also supported the allocation by the UN of €100 million ($117,289,000) to Afghanistan and pointed out that the Europeans had already pledged over €600 million in humanitarian aid for Afghans.

Much of Le Drian’s attention throughout the conference, however, was focused on the recent news that Australia would scrap a lucrative deal with France to buy French-made submarines, and instead form a pact with the UK and US to purchase nuclear submarines.

That deal has proved highly controversial in France and across mainland Europe, and resulted in a diplomatic row between the longtime allies.

Le Drian said that Presidents Macron and Biden will “discuss the matter very frankly” when they speak.


Iran’s fuel shipments violate Lebanon’s sovereignty: PM Mikati

Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon September 13, 2021. (Reuters/File Photo)
Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon September 13, 2021. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 21 September 2021

Iran’s fuel shipments violate Lebanon’s sovereignty: PM Mikati

Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon September 13, 2021. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Lebanon’s new government said its permission was not sought regarding the import of Iranian diesel

BEIRUT: Iranian fuel shipments imported into Lebanon by Hezbollah constitute a breach of the country's sovereignty, Prime Minister Najib Mikati reiterated on Monday.

Lebanon’s new government, which was backed by a parliamentary vote of confidence on Monday, has said its permission was not sought regarding the import of Iranian diesel.

Hezbollah has stored the diesel in tanks in the Baalbek area owned by Al-Amana fuel company that has been under US sanctions since February 2020 due to its ties to the Iranian-backed group.

It began bringing tanker trucks carrying fuel from Iran last Thursday, a move it says would ease a crippling energy crisis in Lebanon. 

A tanker ship carried the fuel to Syria and from there it crossed into Lebanon. Both Syria and Iran are under US sanctions.

“The violation of Lebanon's sovereignty makes me sad," Mikati told CNN in an interview, his office said in a posting last week.

He added: “But I'm not concerned that sanctions can be imposed” on Lebanon “because the operation was carried out without the involvement of the Lebanese government.”

Late on Friday, the Lebanese broadcaster LBCI said that a new group of tankers carrying Iranian fuel entered Lebanon through the Hermel area, populated mainly by Shiite Muslims from whom Hezbollah draws its support.


Syrian migrants allowed in by Merkel vote to choose her successor

Syrian migrants allowed in by Merkel vote to choose her successor
Updated 21 September 2021

Syrian migrants allowed in by Merkel vote to choose her successor

Syrian migrants allowed in by Merkel vote to choose her successor
  • Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015 was a defining issue of Germany’s last federal election campaign in 2017

BERLIN: Tarek Saad is keen to help other Syrian refugees who have fled the war in their homeland to make a new home in Germany and he sees the federal election on Sept. 26 as an opportunity to do just that.

Saad is campaigning in his adopted state of Schleswig-Holstein on the Baltic coast for the Social Democrats (SPD), a party he joined in 2016, just two years after he arrived in Germany bearing two gunshot wounds he had survived in Syria.

“I thought the things making my life difficult must be tormenting others as well. To overcome them as quickly as possible, one should be in a political party,” said the 28-year-old student of political science.

“Our parents lived under a different political system for long years (in Syria) ... This is an opportunity to develop a new generation (in Germany),” said Saad, who like many refugees will vote for the first time as a German citizen.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015 was a defining issue of Germany’s last federal election campaign in 2017.

Not all newly naturalized refugees are as clear as Saad about their voting intentions.

“I am happy to have this opportunity but I am being cautious and maybe I won’t vote,” said Maher Obaid, 29, who lives in the town of Singen near the Swiss border.

Obaid, naturalized in 2019, said a lack of clarity among the parties on foreign policy issues, especially Syria, was behind his hesitation.

The number of Syrians who have acquired German citizenship rose by 74 percent in 2020 to 6,700, federal statistics show. The total number of Syrian refugees is estimated to be much higher, at over 700,000, but getting citizenship requires time and effort.

A 2020 study by the Expert Council on Integration and Migration (SVR) found that only 65 percent of Germans with a migration background voted in 2017, against 86 percent of native-born Germans.

Language fluency and socio-economic situation were two factors determining migrants’ participation, along with the length of their stay, the study found.

“The longer a person stays in Germany ... the more likely they are to feel they understand and can participate in political life,” it said.

Historically, migrants from southern Europe and Turkey who came as guest workers saw the Social Democrats as the party that best represented their interests, a study by the DIW research institute showed.

By contrast, Syrians were more likely to support Merkel’s conservatives who shaped the migration policy from 2013 to 2016 when the majority of them arrived in Germany, the study found.

But with Merkel bowing out of politics after 16 years at the helm, many Syrians are now making different calculations.

“Syrians should be very smart ... What Merkel did was right but what is her successor doing?” asked Abdulaziz Ramadan, head of a migrant integration organization in Leipzig who was naturalized in 2019.

An informal poll among members of a Syrian migrants’ group on Facebook showed most would now vote for the SPD, followed by the Greens, if they were entitled to vote. The option “I don’t care” was the third choice.

Mahmoud Al Kutaifan, a doctor living in the south-western city of Freiburg, is among the few Syrians who were naturalized in time to vote in the 2017 election.

“Out of emotion, I voted then for the party of Mrs. Merkel because she supported refugees,” he said.

While he has not regretted that decision, he, like many other German voters pondering the post-Merkel era, is unsure how to cast his ballot this time round.

“The election date is approaching but I honestly haven’t decided yet.”


EU joins outcry over Houthis’ execution of nine men

EU joins outcry over Houthis’ execution of nine men
Updated 21 September 2021

EU joins outcry over Houthis’ execution of nine men

EU joins outcry over Houthis’ execution of nine men
  • Britain said the executions demonstrated “indifference to human dignity & blatant disregard for fair trial & due process.”
  • The Houthis’ Foreign Ministry dismissed the criticism as “interference in domestic affairs” and accused the United Nations and the West of turning a blind eye to the “coalition’s crimes.”

ADEN: The European Union joined a chorus of international criticism on Monday over the execution of nine men by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen following their conviction for involvement in the killing of the group’s top civilian leader.
Saleh Al-Samad, who held the post of president in the Houthi-controlled administration which runs most of northern Yemen, was killed in April 2018 by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in the port city of Hodeidah on Yemen’s west coast.
A Houthi court found the nine men, including one who was a minor when he was arrested, guilty of spying and sharing sensitive information with the Saudi-led coalition. They were executed on Saturday by firing squad.
Pictures and videos of the executions have been widely shared on social media, which showed military officers shooting the nine men in the back in Sanaa’s central public square.
In a statement condemning the executions, an EU spokesperson said there had also been reports of irregularities in the judicial process and allegations of mistreatment.
“The European Union strongly opposes the death penalty at all times and in all circumstances. It is a cruel and inhumane punishment ...” said the statement.
Earlier, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a similar statement in which he also called for a moratorium on use of the death penalty in Yemen and for a peaceful negotiated settlement of the conflict there.
The US Embassy in Yemen condemned what it called “a sham trial following years of torture and abuse” by the Houthis. Britain said the executions demonstrated “indifference to human dignity & blatant disregard for fair trial & due process.”
The Houthis’ Foreign Ministry dismissed the criticism as “interference in domestic affairs” and accused the United Nations and the West of turning a blind eye to the “coalition’s crimes.”
Samad was the most senior official to be killed by the coalition in the years-long war in which the Houthis are fighting forces loyal to the internationally-recognized government based in the southern port city of Aden.


Two militant commanders killed in Syria drone strikes

Two militant commanders killed in Syria drone strikes
Updated 21 September 2021

Two militant commanders killed in Syria drone strikes

Two militant commanders killed in Syria drone strikes
  • The strikes targeted a vehicle on the road leading from Idlib city to Binnish further north

BEIRUT: Drone strikes Monday killed two militant commanders close to Al-Qaeda in the Idlib region of northwest Syria, a war monitor said.
The raids were carried out by the US-led international coalition battling militants in Syria and Iraq, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
But the coalition told AFP it had not carried out any strikes in Idlib province on Monday.
The strikes targeted a vehicle on the road leading from Idlib city to Binnish further north, the observatory said.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that one of the commanders killed was Tunisian while the other was from Yemen or Saudi Arabia, without identifying the group they belonged to.
The Idlib region is dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, but rebels and other militants are also present.
Militant factions have been the target of Syrian, Russian, US and international coalition strikes in the past. Nine militants were killed in October 2019 in Russian airstrikes on Idlib province, while a US strike a month earlier killed at least 40 militant leaders.
Syria’s war has killed around half a million people since starting in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, spiralling into a complex battlefield involving foreign armies and militants.