The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK) announced that as of Saturday, over 13,000 people have lost their lives due to the coronavirus outbreak. The Iranian regime’s long cover-up of this crisis, its inaction and not taking necessary measures, such as releasing all prisoners have made the situation even worse.
As the Iranian people suffer from one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, there is a growing chorus of voices calling for US sanctions to be lifted. The argument goes that economic pressure is needlessly cruel at a time when the country’s 80 million people are in even more desperate need of medicine and humanitarian goods. But this argument only makes sense if one assumes that sanctions are injurious to the Iranian people under normal conditions, and that just isn’t the case.
The purpose of economic sanctions is to keep the regime from accessing the resources it needs to consolidate its hold on power while preserving the trade in humanitarian goods to whatever extent the regime allows.
So while it is true that the Iranian people have had a hard time accessing medical necessities during the current pandemic, responsibility for that fact belongs solely to the mullahs. Of course, regime officials have made every effort to convince the international community that the sanctions have made the situation worse. And this past week, regime’s President Hassan Rouhani announced that his Ministry of Foreign Affairs had made a priority of influencing global sentiment on this matter. But all such efforts are based on lies, and no policymakers should take them seriously.
This should not be a controversial opinion, but recent statements from the European Union and certain member states suggest that it is. The EU has announced its intention to provide 20 million dollars in medical aid to Iran, with no strings attached. And the multinational body’s head of foreign policy, Josep Borrell also made it clear that the EU would also support Iran’s bid for a five billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Both of these moves are mistakes, and they threaten to provide the Iranian regime with new financial resources for its regional terror campaigns and ever-increasing domestic repression. Neither the EU nor any other concerned party can realistically expect that unmonitored financial gifts to that regime will make their way to the Iranian people.
This message was reinforced by multiple recent statements from the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The NCRI has been closely tracking the impact of coronavirus and the deficiency of the regime’s response. As well as helping to expose the falsity of official infection rates and death tolls, the organization has painted a clear picture of some of the ways in which Tehran can be expected to misappropriate any aid that is freely given for medical purposes.
Even in the event that that aid takes the form of personal protective equipment and medication, rather than cash, the regime would surely find a self-serving purpose for it all. Indeed, it has already done so with medical goods that were in the country and ready for use at the outset of the epidemic.
As NCRI reports explain, masks and gloves have been hoarded and resold by the likes of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. IRGC controls well over half of Iran’s gross domestic product, either directly or through a network of front companies. And that situation is both the cause and the consequence of IRGC consequences to profit off of crisis events to whatever extent possible.
Financial profit in these situations often goes hand-in-hand with political profit, and so regime authorities quickly recognized coronavirus as an occasion for shoring up their control over militant proxies in the broader region. Toward that end, Ali Shamkhani, the head of regime’s Supreme National Security Council, donated 50,000 masks to Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces at a time when they were clearly being used up in Iranian hospitals that serve the public, even if not in private hospitals dedicated to caring for regime officials and their associates.
The resulting shortages have created a truly dire situation for Iranian doctors and nurses. The NCRI finds that well over 100 of them have died so far. No doubt hundreds of others cannot treat patients because they have been infected. And the shrinking availability of personnel threatens to send Iran’s epidemic into a new phase.
It is difficult to overstate how disastrous this could be for the Iranian people. The official death toll recently exceeded 2,000, but independent reports suggest that the actual number of fatalities is more than five times that. The total number of infections is surely well over a million. These figures leave no doubt about the fact that Iran is in desperate need of relief. But the conditions underlying those figures make it clear that relief from sanctions will not translate into relief from coronavirus.
Instead of handing over cash, the international community must take a much more active role in the relief effort. Newly imported medical resources must be taken out of the hands of regime authorities before they too can be misappropriated. And Western policymakers must recognize this situation as an object lesson regarding the foolishness of listening to Iranian propaganda about sanctions, especially in times of crisis.