The Iranian regime is currently engaged in efforts to secure a five-billion-dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund. That effort is almost certain to fail, as the United States could effectively veto a favorable decision by the IMF.
Since pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, citing the regime’s malign activities, the Trump administration has been pursuing a strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran’s theocratic regime. The re-imposition and expansion of sanctions were largely opposed by the deal’s European signatories, though they have generally complied with those sanctions throughout the past two years. Now, opposition by some policymakers has been amplified by Iran’s severe COVID-19 outbreak, which the mullahs have attempted to blame on economic pressure.
It is unfortunate that so many Western officials have been taken in by that claim, considering that it doesn’t stand up to the merest scrutiny. The US has repeatedly pointed out that existing sanctions include specific exemptions for medicine and other humanitarian goods.
This is because the Iranian regime’s officials are not willing nor interested in acquiring the resources they need to help people through the public health crisis than in freeing up foreign assets that could be applied to other, malign objectives. If this was not clear to Western policymakers at the outset of the pandemic, it should have become clear at a number of key moments throughout the past two and a half months.
In March, the Iranian regime’s officials actively rebuffed offers of medical aid both from the US and from Doctors Without Borders. Regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vaguely declared that the former offer “made no sense,” while the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani claimed that assistance from the medical NGO was not needed because Iran still had an ample supply of empty beds in its intensive care units. However, this claim was aggressively contradicted by countless eyewitnesses to the unfolding crisis, who risked arrest by reporting upon an overwhelmed hospital system and overloaded morgues.
According to the regime’s official estimates, COVID-19 has killed just over 6,000 people so far. But according to a number of independent sources, the actual death toll is several times this number. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has reported that the number of fatal cases is now over 40,200 and that this number could more than double before the end of May unless the regime reverses its plans for reopening the domestic economy, which is unlikely due to the regime’s nature.
Those plans began on April 11 with a return to work for many thousands of individuals deemed to occupy “low-risk” positions. It has proceeded into May with the reopening of many of the country’s mosques and the resumption of normal social activities like state-organized Friday prayer gatherings. This goes to show that the measures are driven as much by a desire to facilitate the spread of propaganda as they are by a need to bolster economic activity.
What’s more, that economic activity is its own kind of propaganda. On one hand, it serves to prevent either starvation or mass revolt within a population that has received no assistance from the regime. And on the other hand, it allows the regime to promote the idea that sanctions have had no impact and that the Iranian people are lined up behind their government in support of a “resistance economy.”
However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Iranians are being forced back to their jobs by extreme poverty which could have been prevented by government intervention than by sanctions relief. And the people themselves understand this, as evidenced by the anti-regime messages expressed in two nationwide uprisings and a variety of recent, smaller protests.
The first uprising began in the final days of 2017 and continued for much of the following month, with outrage over economic mismanagement giving rise to calls for “death to the dictator.” The same slogans re-emerged last November after the government announced sharp increases in the price of gasoline. Dozens of protesters were killed in the first uprising, but the regime’s response to the second was far more brutal. The NCRI determined its death toll to be more than 1,500.
The crackdown belies the regime’s professed confidence in popular support for its agenda. After all, the protests not only rejected the notion of the resistance economy but also disavowed the regime’s efforts to blame the people’s hardship on Western sanctions. More specifically, the activist community emphasized that the regime has continued spending huge portions of the national wealth on regional imperialism and the support of terrorist groups like Hezbollah.
This situation has continued throughout the coronavirus outbreak, beyond Tehran’s rejection of foreign aid, and beyond its various appeals for sanctions relief as a means of improving the regime’s handling of public health. Even domestic spending has been badly misplaced throughout this period, as evidenced by last month’s launch of a military satellite, which was a violation of a UN Security Council resolution.
If there is a silver lining in this and other provocative actions by the Iranian regime, it is that they may still undercut that regime’s efforts to gain sympathy from the IMF and from European leaders. Such actions pose an inherent threat that should make those entities wary of granting loans or sanctions relief under any circumstances. But in the midst of the pandemic, those same actions clarify the persistence of mullahs’ misplaced priorities.
In the absence of aggressive oversight from the international community, there is simply no reason to believe that any financial assistance would be spent on safeguarding the people against the virus or its economic effects. Quite the contrary, the Iranian regime’s longstanding behavior suggests that Iranians would still be expected to risk their lives by working due to the regime pursuing its malign objectives, even as foreign capital pours into the country as financing for the same.