Iran’s campaign for the removal of sanctions is a smokescreen

As the number of coronavirus victims mounts, making Iran one of the pandemic’s epicentres, the ruling ayatollahs have spotted an opportunity.

They are driving an international campaign to have international sanctions lifted. Their main target is the tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States in response to Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

Those arguing for an end to the sanctions say that Iran’s economy, health systems and infrastructure are crumbling under their weight, preventing the government from effectively curbing the spread of the coronavirus among its citizens.

President Hassan Rouhani, in an open letter to the American people, declared: ‘The sanctions have drastically undermined the ability of the Iranian people to fight the coronavirus and some among them are losing their lives as a result.’

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed: ‘Iran is the only country in the world that does not have access to all of its resources in order to protect its citizens [and] cannot buy equipment and medical supplies easily. The combination of sanctions and the coronavirus makes it a more dangerous and terrible complication.’

These claims are contradicted by other public statements made by senior Iranian officials.

Rouhani himself said on 1 April: ‘The sanctions have failed to hamper our efforts to fight against the coronavirus outbreak.’

Mohammad Reza Shanehsaz, who heads Iran’s Food and Drug Administration, promised Iranians that the government could meet all needs ‘thanks in large part to imports’. He added, ‘I believe that soon we will not even need imports.’

If Iran is indeed in need of aid and supplies to deal with the undoubtedly severe medical crisis, why, on 23 March, did the regime kick out of the country a team from Medecins Sans Frontieres that was setting up a 50-bed field hospital in Isfahan to help Covid-19 patients?

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei very publicly rejected a US offer to provide medical aid to help fight the virus. He resorted instead to blaming America, jinnis (demons) and the Jews for creating the coronavirus crisis in the first place.

So, are sanctions undermining Tehran’s ability to meet the medical challenge of the coronavirus outbreak or not? And would lifting or loosening sanctions improve the lot of Iranian victims of the pandemic?

The short answer is no.

The sanctions don’t prevent humanitarian supplies from reaching Iran. The US State Department has stated that ‘humanitarian goods, including medicine and medical supplies, are exempt and not subject to any trade restrictions’ by the US.

While it is true that sanctions have complicated the process of importing these products into Iran, pathways have been established to expedite their flow, especially the Swiss humanitarian trade agreement channel established earlier this year.

A memo by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a US-based think tank, notes that official Iranian and external data confirms Iran is ‘receiving billions of dollars in essential goods that it needs to address its health crisis’ from both the US and Europe.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that the regime has vast financial resources that can be used to fight the epidemic, including billions of dollars in various religious funds and trusts directly controlled by Khamenei. Last year, Rouhani asked Khamenei to release US$2 billion from one of those funds ’as a last resort’ to assist with reconstruction of areas recovering from floods.

Tehran’s public relations bid to get sanctions lifted is nothing more than a smokescreen to divert attention from the regime’s own failures in meeting the coronavirus threat, and to further the regime’s aggressive regional agenda.

Instead of devoting more money to fighting the pandemic, Khamenei increased the budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The ayatollahs are hoping that removal of sanctions will save their rule over Iran and lead Iranians to forget the many years of economic mismanagement as the regime spent what the US says is more than US$16 billion on terrorist proxies across the Middle East since 2012.

It can’t be assumed that the ayatollahs will use humanitarian aid for humanitarian purposes. Such money has been diverted in the past for illicit and dubious purposes.

Lifting sanctions against the individuals who make up the regime and their sources of wealth might free up more money, but that money may not go into fighting the virus. Instead, it could be diverted to fighters in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, Iran’s expensive nuclear weapons program—the original target of the sanctions—is steadily progressing under the cover of the pandemic, which is making monitoring more difficult than ever.

The Iranian people should get all the medical supplies and other assistance required to meet this medical emergency, but that aid should be supplied through existing channels or, even better, through reliable NGOs, thus bypassing the regime altogether.

Simply lifting or loosening sanctions would do little or nothing to help the pandemic’s Iranian victims, but would empower the regime to both extend its oppressive rule over Iranians and escalate the violence it has already launched across the Middle East.