Iranian regime’s officials and Iranian state media are presenting a wildly inconsistent picture of the country’s coronavirus outbreak. Each element of that picture is a lie in its own way, designed to distract the domestic population and convince the international community to serve Tehran’s aims.
On one hand, leading figures like regime’s President, Hassan Rouhani, have boasted of empty hospital beds and a declining mortality rate, in an apparent effort to justify measures like the return-to-work orders that began on April 11.
On the other hand, some of the same officials have insisted that the country is struggling to obtain much-needed medicines. This, of course, is their grounds for arguing that the international community should put pressure on the United States to lift economic sanctions and restore Iran’s access to foreign markets.
Unfortunately, some leading policymakers have overlooked the contradictory statements in order to respond favorably to the clerical regime’s appeals for assistance. So far, the U.S. has shown no sign of bowing to the pressure, but that pressure is mounting, and it signifies that Western political will remains divided.
This is an unfortunate situation to be in, especially under the present conditions. Firstly, Iranian regime demonstrated its malign intent on countless occasions in recent years and in various ways. Secondly, the significance of the resulting behaviors has only grown in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The regime’s apparent unwillingness to alter its priorities means that many more Iranians will die unless the international community compels fundamental change.
Ongoing commitment to its military strategy was clearly an element of the message the regime sent to its Western adversaries last Wednesday when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps realized its long-held dream of putting a military satellite into orbit. At least three other satellite launches had failed in the past two years. But even as sanctions tightened their pinch and oil revenues dried up, the program moved forward, bringing with its new developments in rocket technology that could one day be applied to an Iranian regime nuclear weapon.
Crucially, the satellite program and a range of other expensive projects also continued in the midst of worsening economic conditions for the Iranian people, and ultimately in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. According to official state records, that crisis has killed more than 5,800 people so far, but nobody believes in such low death toll. According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the impact of Covid-19 is something like seven times greater than that.
Those who have not been killed or sickened by the virus still have to face the extraordinary impact of its broader effects on society, and they have to do so with virtually no financial support from the Iranian regime.
There is no question that those people are struggling, but the recent increase to their hardship is essentially a product of the mullahs’ own design. At a glance, Western policymakers might see sanctions relief as a way of helping the Iranians to weather the storm, but in reality all they would be doing is helping the dictatorial regime at the expense of the people.
This is because the severe impact of coronavirus and the lack of support for the Iranian people are like so many other problems in Iran, indicators of the regime’s misplaced priorities.
The money spent on launching a satellite could have been used to aid in the fight against coronavirus, but the regime was not interested. Money and personal protective equipment sent to Shiite militia groups in Syria and Iraq could have been better spent on the Iranian people, but the regime was not interested.
Behind all of this there lurks the fact that the regime already has ample wealth with which to pursue its malign aims. The NCRI made this clear in a recent report that examines the financial holdings of four major Iranian institutions, all of which are under the effective control of the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. All of them could be turned into sources of tremendous relief for the Iranian people, but instead they remain as hoards for Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard.
Iranian regime does not need sanctions relief in order to pursue its perverse activities and it could draw away resources from any of several hardline projects at any time in order to help the public. But the mullahs would rather let people suffer and die, then simultaneously deny the scale of that death while trying to exploit it for sympathy from the international community.
The very least that Western policymakers can do under those conditions is withhold that sympathy. To do otherwise would only reward the mullahs’ for their worst actions, quite possibly putting them on course toward unearned sanctions relief. The best way to help the distressed and oppressed Iranian people is to promote regime change to bring freedom and democracy to a country that has suffered too long and too much.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)