The country with the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases to date, of course, is China. Next is Italy. And third in this grim ranking, with more than 16,000 cases and nearly 1,000 deaths as of this writing, is Iran.
But Iran also has something no other nation with a significant cluster of infections must handle: It remains under a harsh sanctions regime re-imposed by the Trump administration after the president withdrew from the Iran deal.
These sanctions are damaging enough to Iran’s medical institutions and basic goods markets under normal circumstances. In a time of pandemic, they are a moral obscenity. Iran needs sanctions relief now to respond to the novel coronavirus. Even a temporary relief — say, for an initial six months with an option for extension — would be a good start, and it is a necessary mercy anyone, including the most vehement Iran hawk, should be able to support.
Sanctions are not gentle. They are not bloodless. They are almost never as targeted as their advocates would have you believe. Restrictions on financial institutions, for example, may seem like a smart option for limiting weapons development or coercing favorable behavior from a rogue state’s elite. In practice, however, the wealthy and powerful rarely suffer from sanctions. They have the resources and contacts abroad to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
Ordinary people do not, and sanctions affect their lives in dangerous ways. In Iran, the U.S. sanctions program has limited imports of medicines and medical equipment. Innocent Iranians, most famously a 15-year-old boy with the entirely treatable condition of hemophilia, have died because our government prevented Iranian doctors from getting the supplies they needed.
Inadequate medical care is not the only effect of U.S. sanctions for the Iranian people. Trump’s revival of sanctions briefly lifted by the Iran deal has plunged the Iranian economy into recession. Oil exports, an important contributor to GDP, are way down, and inflation is way up. The rial has lost half its value as compared to the dollar since the summer of 2017, which means the costs of goods and services (especially food, utilities, and gasoline) are spiking and families’ savings are being obliterated. Food shortages and price hikes have Iranians purchasing rotting produce. When the country experienced severe flooding last year, humanitarian responders couldn’t help many of those affected.
In February 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boasted of these effects. “Things are much worse for the Iranian people [thanks to U.S. sanctions],” he said, “and we are convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.” This is wishful thinking, either naïve or cruel — stupid or evil.
Sanctions don’t have a good record of producing desired results. Research published in International Security found just four successes among 85 examples considered. Sanctions aren’t “likely to achieve major foreign policy goals,” the study advised, but they do “inflict significant human costs on the populations of target states, including on innocent civilians” — like Iranians — “who have little influence on their government’s behavior.”
In Iran specifically, U.S. sanctions have predictably strengthened nationalist sentiment, emboldening hardliners in government, and undermining moderate and internationalist voices. The strategy Pompeo champions is fostering more regional troublemaking from Tehran, not less. And if the Iranian people wanted to overthrow their oppressive regime, how are they supposed to accomplish that while suffering under U.S. sanctions?
Few have the time or energy for revolution when life is becoming more miserable by the day. How do you remake an undemocratic regime when you’re struggling to feed your child? To keep a roof over her head? To get your father his heart medicine?
How do you do have a revolution when you’re sick with COVID-19? “The likelihood of massive protests [now] seems slim given government directives to stay home and rational fears that mass gatherings will only spread the virus,” writes Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative. Sanctions will not force Iran to “behave like a normal nation” in the best of times, and they absolutely will not get Washington the changes it wants during a pandemic.
Sanctions relief for Iran, at least for a few months, is vital for Iran’s health — and ours: Iran’s infections will contribute to COVID-19’s spread elsewhere, and Tehran may even be under-reporting its infection and/or death rate. Hawks can rest assured their fears will not be realized in this small mercy; experts say Iran is several years away from being able to make a nuclear weapon if it had that intent. Moreover, Iran isn’t going to build a nuke during the pandemic, and even if it somehow did, the strength of the U.S. military — both conventional and nuclear — is more than adequate to indefinitely deter its use.
In short, there is simply no case that an Iranian nuclear weapon should be our primary concern in U.S.-Iran relations in this moment. The problem at hand is the novel coronavirus, and U.S. sanctions are aiding its killing spree in Iran. We can return to debating the best Iran policy after the pandemic is over. Right now, immediate sanctions relief is the only choice.
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