US-Led Sanctions Against Iran Could Mean an Endless Battle with the Coronavirus

Following the January 3 assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the United States and Iran came within inches of an all-out military conflict. On January 10, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13902 which compounded a crippling set of sanctions on Iran.

Also in January, China was just beginning to identify and deal with an unknown and deadly virus that was starting to infect people in the Chinese city of Wuhan. In a very short time, that virus became a worldwide pandemic know as Covid-19 or the coronavirus.

The Spread of Covid-19 and Iran’s Situation

As this virus made its way around the world and continues to do so, countries have been facing worst-case medical scenarios, which have led governments to enforce countrywide work stoppages, strict “social distancing” guidelines, and in many cases complete lockdowns.

Even the most advanced Western countries have come face-to-face with worst-case medical scenarios, leaving those less advanced in worse conditions.

For decades Iran has had a series of crippling sanctions imposed on them. These worldwide sanctions against Iran include preventing any international financial transactions and shipping, and trade, including that of medicine and medical equipment. These coupled with falling oil prices  Iran’s principal export  have debilitated the Iranian economy.

In a global economy, the sanctions have left Iran unable to compete in that environment. They have also left Iran prostrate should any worst-case situation impact the country. That worst-case scenario has arrived with the coronavirus.

Iran is in Dire Need of Help

As the virus spread through Iran, its government has been unable to react in the same manner that other governments have. The punishing financial nature of these worldwide sanctions against the country means Iran is unable to enforce the kinds of measures other nations have taken in order to properly combat the coronavirus.

According to Tehran Mayor Pirouz Hanachi, any kind of shutdown would be “nearly impossible to enforce because the government would be unable to financially support people unable to work.”

Like many countries battling the pandemic, Iran is in dire need of help  one citizen is dying every ten minutes and 50 become infected every hour.

As of 25 March, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering, Iran ranks sixth in the world with the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus. And the country is not expected to reach the apogee of the pandemic until May. Countries around the world, including top American adversaries China and Russia, and its strongest ally Britain, have implored the Trump administration to ease its sanctions on Iran.

However, US President Donald Trump is so committed to crushing Iran’s current government that instead he instituted a new round of sanctions on March 20, blacklisting 12 companies from trading in petrochemicals.

Is Trump Making the Iran’s Health Crisis Worse?

In addition to their request for the US to ease its sanctions, China defied US sanctions and sent a medical team, test kits, and ventilators to Iran after the country became a hot zone. As tensions between America and China continue to bubble, having Iran looking to China for help has the potential to upset the balance of power in the region away from the West.

In early March, Chinese Government spokesman Lijian Zhao poked fun at the US by tweeting, “might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”

Not easing the tension between Iran and the US, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also taken a page from Zhao’s propaganda playbook by claiming that the coronavirus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians.”

The accusations of both China and Iran remain wholly unsubstantiated.

Taking aim at both China and Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus” and said Khamenei’s “fabrications are dangerous and they put Iranians and people around the world at greater risk.”

The approach that the United States has taken with Iran has been called “maximum pressure.” Yet the US Special Representative for Iranian Affairs, Brian Hook, has said:  “US sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran,” which isn’t entirely accurate.

If Iran Can’t Beat Coronavirus Neither Can the World

In order to see through the inaccuracy of Hook’s claims it is necessary to understand some rather obscure language. The arcane legalese used for sanctions is challenging but in President Trump’s January 10 Executive Order it is stated in Sec. 4: “I hereby determine that the making of donations by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests are blocked…”

This includes:

  • The making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any person 
  • The receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services 
  • Accepting deposits, making granting, transferring, holding, or brokering loans or credits
  • Purchasing or selling foreign exchange, securities, commodity futures or options

Because banks were unable to process financial transactions, the international companies who manufacture the equipment and supplies needed to fight the coronavirus have stopped shipping to Iran.

To put it simply: Iran does not have the ability to institute measures that could “flatten the curve” and stop the spread of the coronavirus. This “maximum pressure” policy that the US has applied to Iran strictly prohibits both foreign and domestic companies and governments from lending aid as the country still faces the worst of the pandemic. 

This isn’t just a problem for the Middle East because if the international community continues to turn its back on Iran because of punitive measures, the world will face an endless battle with a deadly disease.

Iran’s inability to constrain the coronavirus means a potentially never-ending battle against the deadly Covid-19 for all of us.