By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
The international community needs to do something to help the Iranian people make it through their country’s coronavirus epidemic. It is increasingly obvious that their own government will do nothing for them. But that fact underscores the potential error of following what is many Western policymakers’ first impulse for how to help, namely advocating sanctions relief or injecting cash into the Iranian economy.
The problem with this strategy is that it rewards the Iranian regime without making sure that the relevant funds reach the civilian population. The truth is that if anyone were to propose specific conditions that guarantee the proper dispersal of those funds, the relief would surely be rejected by the regime.
Even the slightest hint of foreign influence on the regime’s decision-making is grounds for Iranian officials to cry foul and rebuff offers of external assistance. Indeed, they have done exactly this on at least two occasions since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The US-made an offer of medical aid in March, but the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vaguely dismissed it as making “no sense.” He has returned to the topic several times since then, proudly declaring that Iran would never seek help from the United States. At the same time, his regime has never stopped begging for relief from US sanctions while deceptively tying this prospect to Iran’s coronavirus response.
The US has done its part to emphasize that there are already humanitarian exceptions to the sanctions, which allow Iran to purchase medicine and other goods that are essential to combating a public health emergency. Unfortunately, this rebuttal has had limited effects on European allies, some of which are still urging the US to reconsider sanctions relief during the coronavirus outbreak, or even for the foreseeable future.
Iran’s refusal to accept US aid should have conclusively demonstrated that coronavirus-related arguments for relief were not credible. If any European policymakers needed further evidence, they should have been satisfied with the regime’s subsequent rejection of another offer, this time from Doctors Without Borders.
The medical NGO had developed plans for building and staffing a field hospital capable of treating 50 Covid-19 patients at a time, but then it was effectively kicked out of the country with no clear reasons being given. Some have suggested that aversion to the plan stemmed from a paranoid belief that any foreign nationals, even doctors and nurses, could be spies or saboteurs. But of course, the regime attempted to portray the incident as a sign of the regime’s self-confidence and strength.
Figures like regime’s President Hassan Rouhani have repeatedly declared that Iran needs no foreign assistance because its hospitals are full of empty beds amidst a well-managed viral outbreak. However, these accounts fly in the face of eyewitness testimony from Iranian medical professionals, ordinary citizens, and even a handful of officials who have taken the unheard-of step of publicly contradicting the official narrative.
Among those officials was one member of the Health Ministry’s coronavirus task force who declared last month that the total number of infections had likely surpassed half a million. But even this is a conservative estimate in comparison to those offered by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) after analyzing hospital records and eyewitness testimony. In its most recent reports, the NCRI concluded that Iran’s death toll from COVID-19 has now exceeded 40,700, while Iranian officials insist that the figure is barely over 6,000.
The NCRI has also responded to the ongoing reopening of the Iranian economy by saying that unless Tehran abruptly changes course, a further 20,000 people could die just by the end of May. The chances of this outcome would not be mitigated in the slightest by either lifting or circumventing US sanctions on the regime. Iranians who are currently returning to work are not doing so because domestic commerce is necessary to stave off the effects of those sanctions. They are doing so because their own government is plainly unwilling to prioritize the public good ahead of projects that promote an image of strength for the clerical regime.
Make no mistake, regime authorities have ample resources with which to help their people through the present crisis. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps exerts control over the majority of the country’s gross domestic product and it’s commercial front Khatam al-Anbia has literally hundreds of billions of dollars at its disposal. Similar quantities of cash are held in reserve by religious foundations under the personal control of the supreme leader, yet Khamenei has been noticeably reluctant to utilize any of the available assets.
If the theocratic system will not use its existing assets to support the domestic population and prevent them from returning to normal social activities in the middle of a plague, then there is absolutely no reason to suppose that they would make appropriate use of assets now being held in foreign banks.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the situation confronting Iranian civilians. However, advocates of sanctions relief are correct in saying that the international community has a responsibility to help those people. That responsibility is best served by maintaining or even increasing pressure on the regime, not by letting up. Tehran must be made to either accept foreign influence over the ways in which money is spent or else step aside and let independent experts take over the Iranian coronavirus response.
Of course, Western policymakers must also accept the possibility that neither of these outcomes will be achieved in time to save the Iranian lives that are on the line during this month alone. Even in that case, sanctions relief would only cause the long-term death toll to grow as Iran’s mismanagement of the crisis continues unchecked. Worse still, those who die from Covid-19 would soon be joined by those who perish from the inevitable increase in Iran’s malign activities, including its support for regional conflicts and its funding of international terrorist groups.
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)