Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced new sanctions against Iran following an attack in Taji, Iraq, that resulted in the deaths of two American service members. The sanctions are intended to target several individuals who are vital to the petrochemical industry in Iran but were met with widespread condemnation from voices within the United States and abroad. U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar declared, “We need to suspend these sanctions before more lives are lost”. China and Russia decried the news, with the Russian Foreign Ministry stating that “Millions of Iranian citizens were cut off from the possibility of purchasing necessary medical supplies, no matter how hard Washington tried to distort it. The anti-human policy of the U.S. provokes deep regret, alarm and serious concern”.
There are now videos circulating online of mass graves being built in the city of Qom and blackened rows of body bags. At the time this article was written, Iran had 17,361 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 1,135 deaths from the virus. However, there are widespread suspicions that the actual number may be much higher. Case numbers are underreported due to information clampdowns and there is a lack of proper testing kits. A paper by the University of Toronto’s Ashleigh Tuite noted that, if the rate of infections has continued to steadily rise since the virus first appeared in February, the actual number of cases may be closer to 586,000. Dr Afruz Eslami appeared on Iranian State Television and predicted that if the medical system cannot keep up with demand, then up to, “3.5 million people will die,”.
Iran, which has long suffered under U.S. sanctions, has struggled in the past to deal with supply shortages especially during times of crisis. Although several domestic industries are self-sufficient, it still requires imports to produce pharmaceutical drugs and desperately needed medical supplies. Iran has requested a loan of 5 billion USD from the International Monetary Fund to fight the disease but procuring these loans will be an uphill battle with the United States exerting its policy of “maximum pressure”. The U.S. declares that it exempts humanitarian aid from sanctions, yet the mere presence of sanctions serves as a grave deterrent for banks and international businesses. This has been a problem for decades; in the past, the U.S. Treasury Department has even prosecuted medical companies for selling supplies to Iran. At a time like this, a supply shortage can be lethal.
That the United States is placing more sanctions on Iran demonstrates a callous disregard for human life. It goes against every principle the United States claims to stand for. There is a long history of bad blood between Iran and the United States, going back to the 1950s when the British and American governments supported a coup d’état against the democratically elected prime minister of Iran. Once the 1979 Revolution ousted the American-supported Shah of Iran, a long series of tit-for-tat politics began between the two countries. Sanctions have been a mainstay of this dysfunctional relationship ever since. Yet even the Bush administration lifted the sanctions temporarily after a 2003 earthquake killed 23,000 people in Iran, showing that they could put aside old grudges for the sake of morality.
Sadly, that level of compassion cannot be expected from the Trump administration. This policy will kill Iranian citizens. When ailing patients suffocate from a lack of ventilators, it will be the American president who bears the responsibility. Iran is in desperate need of life-giving medical supplies and America has a moral duty to lift sanctions now in order to prevent more deaths.
That is not to say that the Iranian government has been guiltless in all of this. It has frequently lied to or misled its own people regarding the disease, at one point even spreading propaganda about the virus being an American/Israeli plot. Authorities arrested those who posted videos online about the spread of Covid-19 and for weeks shrines where mass gatherings took place were left open despite pleas from health officials. The Khamenei regime is still one that is repressive and undemocratic; only a few months ago the Ayatollah was authorizing the use of lethal force against protestors. The Iranian government needs to be honest and accessible to its own people if it is to pull through this crisis. Most importantly, however, the Iranian people are not at fault for their government and they should not be made to suffer for it.
This could be the perfect opportunity for both parties to improve relations. Since the 2019 assassination of Iranian General Qasem Solimani, there has been a breakdown in communication between the two countries. They have come right to the cusp of open conflict, trading blows through their proxies to harm each other. Now that the Covid-19 Pandemic is in full swing, the Trump Administration is using its economic leverage as a weapon. Rather than adding fuel to the fire, both sides could attempt to bury the hatchet.
If the United States claims to value the principles of basic human rights, then it must suspend all current sanctions against Iran. It must demonstrate to the Iranian people that it is not the inhumane monster that Iran accuses it of being. As of now, it is doing little to help its cause. What Iranians see is a lifelong enemy of their country working to further their suffering. The U.S. and its allies could be providing vital foreign aid at this very moment. That could be lift sanctions, fly-in supplies, and companies producing life-saving equipment such as ventilators and masks. Yet all this depends on the United States and whether it is willing to put aside their grudges for the sake of morality. This is what happened after the earthquake. There is no reason that the same cannot happen again.
According to U.S. officials, they cannot give aid to Iran as the government and elites would funnel it away. Even if that assertion is true, merely lifting the sanctions would be a tremendous boon to Iran. They could use this opportunity to buy medical supplies for the population and in return, they could curb the activities of their proxies. The world stands on the brink of crisis; now more than ever the Middle East needs stability. Countries within the region could then divert their militaries to aid with quarantine efforts as well as providing food and medicine to population centres. That will require a drastic de-escalation from the current situation though.
Neither country wants to give an inch to its opponent and risk appearing weak. Removing sanctions and toning down rhetoric would allow both parties to save face while fighting the spread of Covid-19. Most of all, it would demonstrate that both the Iranian and American governments are willing to put politics aside for the well-being of their own people. This is a crisis that the United States could be taking on as a global leader, helping to provide stability and guidance in this time of uncertainty. Yet all that depends on the Trump Administration is willing to put humanity first over America. Whether that can be accomplished remains to be seen.