By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
The Iranian dictatorship is desperate to re-start its economy. This was obvious on April 11 when the clerical regime sent tens of thousands of people back to supposedly “low risk” jobs, and it has become more obvious with every subsequent step toward a full-scale resumption of commerce and social activity.
The irrationality of that plan was revealed with even greater clarity at the start of this week when the country recorded more than 2,000 new cases of Covid-19, pushing the three-month total above 122,000. Officially, more than 7,000 Iranians have now died from the novel coronavirus, and yet plans to put everyone back to work are still proceeding virtually unabated.
This would demonstrate sufficiently shocking neglect for Iran’s population of 83 million people if the figures cited by the government were reliable. But those figures have long been questioned by epidemiologists, as well as experts on the Iranian regime. And the country’s leading coalition of democratic opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), has put great effort into tracing the outbreak and providing an alternative account of its severity.
According to the NCRI, the total number of cases most likely exceeded one million before the start of the current month. To date, roughly 42,600 people have died, and the reopening plans may have put the country on course to 60,000 deaths before the month is over.
This situation is made all the more tragic by the fact that it was plainly avoidable. Iranian officials went ahead with their initial reopening plans even though the official record showed a spike in new cases just days earlier. While the regime’s propaganda outlets were boasting of an outbreak that was already well under control, some Health Ministry officials attempted to blow the whistle and emphasize that the risk of a second wave of infection still pervaded the entire nation.
This was all for naught, because the policy of reopening had already been set by no less an authority than the regime’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who in March had named the new Iranian calendar year the “year of boosting production.” The message was clear: countering US sanctions took precedence over all other considerations, even in the midst of an emerging pandemic.
There is an apparent temptation among some Western policymakers to respond to this fact by advocating for the suspension of those sanctions, at least while the pandemic is still ongoing. But they should resist this impulse, because it is exactly the response that figures like Khamenei are hoping for. Even more, that hope stems not from any desire to help their own people, but rather from the desperate need of resources of the mullahs to go on holding proxy wars, filling their own pockets and oppressing their citizens.
Khamenei’s fixation on undermining US sanctions was well established before the novel coronavirus breached Iran’s borders. It will remain his regime’s fixation long after the pandemic is over. And regardless of how many Iranians it claims along the way, the regime´s response to the pandemic will always put its economic concerns ahead of the public welfare.
If this were not the case, the regime could take steps right this moment to help its suffering people. Khamenei personally wields control over hundreds of billions of dollars in assets that are being held in religious foundations and other institutions scattered around Iran. Meanwhile, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controls similar amounts, partly through its construction conglomerate Khatam al-Anbia. In fact, it is believed that after years of faux privatization and consolidation, the IRGC controls more than half of Iran’s gross domestic product.
Of course, being held in domestic accounts and beyond the reach of the US financial system, none of these assets are affected by US sanctions. Furthermore, those sanctions include specific exceptions for medicine and other humanitarian goods, meaning that state institutions are free to carry out transactions with foreign countries if they are truly relevant to Iran’s fight against the coronavirus.
However, neither Khamenei, the IRGC, nor any other entity in the regime is interested in freeing up the wealth they have been hoarding. In the first place, much of that money is earmarked for imperialist projects such as the ongoing financing of Hezbollah and other terrorist proxies. And in the second place, acknowledging the availability of so much money would rob the Iranian regime of the opportunity to play the victim in foreign media and diplomatic communications.
It is deeply ironic that Iran’s domestic propaganda outlets have quoted its officials as saying that their intensive care units are almost empty and that the regime has handled its coronavirus outbreak much better than the West. This stands in stark contrast to statements issued by the likes of the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani as recently as last week, which blame the US for tragic medical outcomes in Iran, while insisting that all the US has to do to help the Iranian people is stop enforcing sanctions.
When the mullahs make reference to “the Iranian people,” it is always safe to assume that what they are really talking about is themselves. Now, as before the coronavirus pandemic, it is they who would benefit from the lifting of sanctions. Why should foreign capital be any different from the wealth that is already held by the regime’s supreme leader and his allies? They are the ones who would have discretion to choose where it is spent. And if they are unwilling to defer existing sums away from malign activities and toward the public, why would they assign different priorities to newly unfrozen assets?
Iranians are suffering terribly, and their hardship stands to increase as the coronavirus outbreak continues its spread. And although it is true that an infusion of money could help to alleviate that suffering, there is no safe means of distributing it to them as long as the current Iranian regime remains in power.
Direct aid may be a viable solution, but it must be distributed without interference from the mullahs. And sadly, there is no realistic situation in which they would allow this, least of all after having already rejected offers of medical assistance both from the US and from Doctors Without Borders. Unless this mentality changes on its own, the only effective way anyone can help Iran’s people is by keeping pressure on the regime to provide that help through its own resources.
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)