Iran's health ministry raised the death toll from the new coronavirus to eight Sunday, amid concerns that clusters there as well as in Italy and South Korea could signal a serious new stage in its global spread.
There were now 43 confirmed cases of the illness in Iran, health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour told state TV. That's a jump from a Saturday's total of 28 confirmed cases and six fatalities.
The outbreak in Iran has centered mostly on the city of Qom, but spread rapidly over the past few days to people in four other cities, including the capital, Tehran. Iranians also went to the polls on Friday for nationwide parliamentary elections, with many voters wearing masks and stocking up on hand sanitizer.
Iran is already facing diplomatic and economic isolation under U.S. pressure. The virus threatens to isolate Iran even further, with some countries now barring their citizens from traveling there.
Authorities shuttered schools in 10 provinces across the country for at least two days starting Sunday. Tehran University also suspended classes and shuttered its dormitories for several days. Those who live in student dorms were asked to return to their home towns and continue classes through the internet where possible.
Soccer fans across the country won't be allowed to attend matches, and shows in movie theaters and other venues were suspended until Friday. Authorities have begun daily sanitization of Tehran's metro, which is used by some 3 million people, and public transportation cars in the city.
Iran reported its first cases of the virus on Wednesday, announcing that same day that two elderly people had died from the virus in Qom. Schools and religious seminaries in the Shiite holy city were closed.
Jahanpour said the 15 newly confirmed cases included seven in Qom, four in Tehran, two in the northern Gilan province, one in the central Markazi province, and one from the town of Tonekabon in the northern Mazandaran province, who died of the illness.
Iran's Health Minister Saeed Namaki told state TV that officials were nearly certain the virus came from China to Qom in central Iran. He also said that among those who'd died from the virus was a merchant who regularly shuttled between the two countries using indirect flights in recent weeks, after Iran stopped direct passenger flights to China.
He did not say when the merchant had returned from China to Iran nor what steps health officials had taken to quarantine and check on those he'd come into contact with.
Namaki, however, defended the government's handling of the outbreak, saying it was being "transparent." He said it would help make face-masks and sanitizers available for Iranians, amid concerns that stocks were running low in the capital's pharmacies.
Iran is also producing kits for diagnosis of the infection, he added.
"We obviously do not recommend traveling to Qom and other pilgrimage cities," Namaki said. The city is a major destination for pilgrims inside Iran and from abroad.
Iran has also set up 36 screening stations at different ports of entry to the country to check for possibly infected travelers, he added.
Iraq and Pakistan, which share borders with Iran, have already taken preventive measures to limit the spread of the virus from Iranian travelers. Iraq has barred Iranians from entering the country, impacting thousands of religious pilgrims and businessmen.
Officials in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, which has a long frontier with Iran, declared an emergency as they seek to stop the spread of the virus. They suspended almost all traffic across the Taftan border crossing with Iran.
Turkey temporarily closed its land border with Iran due to coronavirus Sunday, according to Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca. Turkey is yet to record a case of coronavirus.
Eight people have been refused entry to Turkey from Iran since Friday, when Turkey introduced health checks on travelers at frontier crossings, Koca said in Istanbul.
Jordan also began denying entry of non-Jordanians coming from Iran and South Korea on Sunday. That's in addition to the previous ban on those coming from China. Jordanians arriving from those countries will be quarantined.
Infected travelers from Iran already have been discovered in Lebanon and Canada.
Lebanon's first case of the new virus was discovered on a flight from the Iranian city of Qom this week.
Saudi Arabia has ordered anyone traveling from Iran to wait at least 14 days before entering the kingdom as it seeks to prevent the spread of the virus to the Muslim pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina. It has also barred its residents and citizens from travelling to Iran and China.
Kuwait has also suspended flights to Iran and is barring ships from Iran from docking at its ports. Kuwait said it is evacuating 750 Kuwaiti citizens on five flights. Kuwait's state-run news agency reported on Saturday that Kuwait health officials were sent to Iran, in coordination with Iranian counterparts, to conduct medical checks on Kuwaitis departing Iran, but that Iranian authorities denied the Kuwaiti health officials entry.
A small instrument inside the drones that targeted the heart of Saudi Arabia's oil industry and those in the arsenal of Yemen's Houthi rebels match components recovered in downed Iranian drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, two reports say.
These gyroscopes have only been found inside drones manufactured by Iran, Conflict Armament Research said in a report released on Wednesday. That follows a recently released report from the United Nations, saying its experts saw a similar gyroscope from an Iranian drone obtained by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, as well as in a shipment of cruise missiles seized in the Arabian Sea bound for Yemen.
The discovery further ties Iran to an attack that briefly halved Saudi Arabia's oil output and saw energy prices spike by a level unseen since the 1991 Gulf War. It also ties Iran to the arming of the rebel Houthis in Yemen's long civil war. Iran denies it had a hand in that assault but has increasingly promoted its influence over the Houthis and launched a ballistic missile attack on American troops in Iraq after a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad last month.
"This gyroscope ... we've seen it now enough times in Iranian-manufactured material to be able to confidently say that the presence of it in a Houthi-produced item suggests that the material was supplied from Iran," Jonah Leff of Conflict Armament Research told The Associated Press.
Iran's mission to the U.N. declined to immediately respond to queries from the AP.
Media officials from the rebel Houthis, who hold Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and have been battling a Saudi-led coalition since March 2015, declined an interview request. A U.N. Security Council resolution prohibits arms transfers to the Houthis.
A gyroscope is a device that helps orient and guide a drone or missile to its target. The gyroscopes in question bear no manufacturer's name and come in at least two versions labeled as V9 and V10, according to the reports. Their four-digit serial numbers also appear sequential, suggesting the same manufacturer had built all of those found.
The Houthi's Qasef-1 drone carries the V10 gyroscope, which is "identical" to one found in an Iranian-made Ababil-3 drone, which Islamic State group fighters reportedly recovered in Iraq, Conflict Armament Research said. Weapons experts found the V9 version of the gyroscope in drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, used in the September attack on Abqaiq, home of a crucial oil processing facility for Saudi Arabia, the U.N. report said.
"According to UAV experts familiar with this technology, such vertical gyroscopes have not been observed in any UAVs other than those manufactured by Iran," Conflict Armament Research said in its report, which was funded by the European Union and the governments of Germany and the United Arab Emirates.
The U.N. report simply said that "the manufacturer of the gyroscope remains unknown." However, it noted finding similar V10 gyroscopes "among the debris of both Samad and Qasef UAVs, which have been used by the Houthi forces."
The U.N. also said its experts saw a V9 gyroscope on display in Washington at a military display showing an Iranian Shahed-123 that American officials say they recovered in Afghanistan in October 2016, after it crash-landed.
Images of the gyroscopes match those in the Conflict Armament Research report. A similar gyroscope could be seen inside a cruise missile seized by the U.S. Navy in a November raid on a traditional dhow shipping boat in the Arabian Sea. A computer terminal also seized with the missiles, likely used with the weapons, bore Farsi characters on its keyboard.
The U.S. and the Saudi-led coalition have long said that Iran supplies weapons to the Houthis, ranging from assault rifles to the ballistic missiles fired into the kingdom. The U.S. Navy announced a new weapons cache find aboard a dhow this month, but it wasn't clear if the same gyroscopes were inside missiles recovered in this find.
Drones used by the Houthis have done everything, from crashing into Patriot missile batteries to exploding overhead and showering deadly shrapnel on targets. An exploding Houthi drone in a January 2019 attack on a military parade near Aden killed at least six people, including the commander of military intelligence for Yemen's internationally recognized government.
Iran, in turn, has long denied arming the Houthis, but that veil slowly lifted after the January U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whose expeditionary Quds Forces led Iran's work with allied proxy forces in Yemen and elsewhere. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh of the Guard's aerospace program recently gave a speech in front of a Houthi flag, as well as those of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Hamas and others in an effort to project Iran's power.
But previously, Iran's murky arming of militant groups gave it plausible deniability and an ability to strike at opponents without being directly blamed, analysts say. While the wider confrontation with the U.S. since President Donald Trump pulled out of Iran's nuclear deal with world powers has seen Tehran's military claim launched attacks, other claims still could come from Tehran-allied militants.
That makes tracing weapons important, Leff said. The Conflict Armament Research report also said some components used in Houthi drones had been seen in homemade explosives recovered on the island nation of Bahrain as well.
"For them to line up with many of the components that we're seeing in these UAVs for us suggests that there are some well-established supply lines," he said. "There's another research question that would be drilling down to, you know, who are the parties involved in actually trafficking these items into Yemen. That we have less information on."
Israel's military will set up a special branch in its general staff dedicated to threats from Iran, it said Tuesday.
The military said it will appoint a major general to head the command, which is part of a broader restructuring in the general staff.
A statement by the military offered few details about the new command, saying the nature of the new branch's work was "yet to be determined." But the move highlights the importance Israel places on the threats it views coming from Iran.
Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel's northern neighbor, and supports Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. In Gaza, it supplies Islamic Jihad with cash, weapons and training, and also supports Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the coastal territory. Israel also accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons — a charge Iran denies.
Israel has repeatedly struck Iran-linked targets in Syria in recent years and has warned against any permanent Iranian presence on the frontier. But its battle against Iran has increasingly come out of the shadows, with Iranian and Israeli forces coming into direct confrontation.
In November, the Israeli military said fighter jets hit multiple targets belonging to Iran's elite Quds force, including surface-to-air missiles, weapons warehouses and military bases.
Israel has also struck a number of Iranian military targets in Syria, including munition storage facilities, an intelligence site and a military training camp, in response to an Iranian missile attack a day earlier.
Knife-wielding Palestinian youth was arrested in the West Bank city of Hebron on Monday after attempting to carry out a stabbing attack against a police officer, Israeli police said.
The incident took place at a checkpoint outside a flashpoint holy site known to Jews as the Cave of Patriarchs and to Muslims as Ibrahimi Mosque.
A 19-year-old man approached a Border Police officer on duty at a security checkpoint and tried to stab him, according to a statement issued by the Israeli police.
"Officers responded and the suspect was arrested at the scene," the police said, adding that the suspect was not shot.
No injuries were reported at the scene.
The police boosted its forces in the area following the incident.
The incident came amidst tensions in the region following the publication of U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan. The Palestinians and most of the Arab world have rejected the plan as biased and unfair.
Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war and has controlled it ever since, despite international criticism.
Visiting Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said on Sunday that his country is expecting major economic cooperation with Syria in the future.
Larijani made the remarks during a joint press conference with his Syrian counterpart Hammoudeh Sabbagh in the capital Damascus following their meeting in the Syrian Parliment.
"We underscore the importance of cooperation between the Syrian and Iranian businessmen and we see that these businessmen will definitely pave the way for a future busy with economic cooperation between the two countries," Larijani said.
Meanwhile, Sabbagh said he believes the future of the economic cooperation between the two countries will be "prosperous."
"As the brothers in Iran have had a role in supporting Syria in the unjust war against it, Iran will also have a role in the reconstruction process," he noted.
During the Syrian war, Iran has emerged as a key regional ally of the Syrian government which has repeatedly said friendly countries like Iran will have a role in the Syrian reconstruction.