Iran is suffering from one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world. Judging by each country’s official infection rates and death tolls, Iran ranks as the fifth-worst. But Iranian regime’s official statistics are highly suspect, as the theocratic regime keeps a tight hold on the flow of information and focuses much of its effort on controlling public narratives at times of crisis.
Whereas Tehran claims that roughly 30,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed, with just over 2,000 of them being fatal, independent sources suggest that the death toll is easily five times that. Hospital admission records show that the total number of infections may have exceeded one million by mid-March. Satellite imagery and eyewitness testimony suggest that authorities have dug massive trenches in cemeteries near the cities of Tehran and Qom, in preparation for an influx of victims. And reports from the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mojahedin-e Khalq or MEK) indicate that hundreds of medical victims have been killed by the outbreak.
The resulting shortage of personnel obviously sets the stage for the epidemic to get even worse before it gets better. And this trend would certainly be reinforced if the existing Iranian government was permitted to continue managing the coronavirus response as it has been doing so far. It is therefore shocking to note that a number of Western policymakers and non-governmental organizations have actually been pushing for the US to lift sanctions on Iran’s regime in order to provide the regime with additional resources for its own efforts.
The US State Department has rightly pushed back against these appeals. And on Monday it released a fact sheet justifying its ongoing commitment to “maximum pressure” and explaining why Iranian officials should not be taken seriously when they claim that existing sanctions have made the public health crisis worse.
For one thing, US sanctions have built-in exceptions for humanitarian goods, including medicine. What’s more, the White House has even gone to the trouble of establishing a Swiss channel for transactions leading to Iran’s receipt of such goods. Before the coronavirus pandemic truly took hold, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that there was substantial interest in this mechanism for conducting legitimate business with Iranian entities. So it stands to reason that the Iranian regime could access the resources if needs to fight back against coronavirus, if that was its priority.
Instead, the regime has conclusively demonstrated that its focus lies elsewhere. On Wednesday it was widely reported that the regime’s Health Ministry had rebuffed an offer by Doctors Without Borders to send nine of its staff into Iran and build a makeshift hospital capable of servicing 50 patients at a time. The Ministry’s spokesman, Kianoush Jahanpour, insisted that such assistance was not necessary because the country’s own hospitals still had ample space. But this contradicts numerous appeals for help coming directly from Iranian doctors and nurses who have risked imprisonment by disclosing that dozens of patients were dying in their facilities each day.
In fact, the regime’s rejection of the NGO’s offer of help presumably stems from the same paranoia that prompted regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to dismiss a previous offer coming directly from the United States. And Khamenei even went so far as to speculate that Covid-19 – an illness that has sickened more than 80,000 US citizens – is an American bioweapon.
Addressing the US directly in a speech last Sunday, Khamenei said, “Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more… You might send people as doctors and therapists; maybe they would want to come here and see the effect of the poison they have produced in person.”
In an effort to further downplay the impact of that decision, the regime’s Health Ministry noted that the NGO’s offer did not include anything that was currently inaccessible because of US sanctions. In this way, regime all but admitted that it is perfectly capable of accessing medical necessities while the sanctions are still in place. Yet this has not stopped the country’s Foreign Affairs Committee from publicly prioritizing a campaign to turn international sentiment against the sanctions.
“While the regime has made a concerted effort to blame the sanctions as the real reason for the catastrophic situation, in reality, no one but the regime is responsible for the crisis,” Mohammad Mohaddessin, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) said in a teleconference on Thursday. He also emphasized that:
“The regime is exploiting the Iranian people’s predicament to alleviate sanctions in order to have more means to continue its repression, terrorism, and belligerence. Even a dime to this regime will not reach the Iranian people. All assistance to Iran should be sent and distributed directly by the international agencies. Otherwise, they will be stolen by the regime.”
Mohammad Mohaddessin, Chairman of the FAC of NCRI, addresses the causes for the spread of #coronavirus in #Iran, Iranian regime’s cover-up, mismanagement and politicizing the issue to get international sanctions lifted. #COVID2019https://t.co/F1hQQlTWi7 pic.twitter.com/PKCuM022Dw
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) March 26, 2020
This campaign must not be allowed to succeed. While the existing humanitarian exceptions make it clear that removing US sanctions would not be relevant to the current crisis, the surrounding conditions suggest that doing so would actually be harmful to the Iranian people. The Iranian regime has already mismanaged the situation so badly that its coronavirus outbreak is perhaps the single worst on the globe. By placing additional resources in the hands of that regime, the world would only be inviting it misallocate or waste them on an even grander scale.
If the world wants to provide aid, then international entities like the World Health Organization must take the lead in administering it. In a nutshell, while the international community must rush to aid the Iranian people, the regime should be punished for crimes that include neglect for its own people at this crucial time.