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With Inconsistent Message on Coronavirus, Iran’s Regime Makes a Poor Case for Sanctions Relief

Iran’s regime tries for sanctions relief under the pretext coronavirus outbreak
Iran’s regime tries for sanctions relief under the pretext coronavirus outbreak

On Wednesday, Iranian regime’s President Hassan Rouhani held a televised cabinet meeting and seemed to accept that the United States was not about to give into demands for an end to economic sanctions. But in a move that was typical of the Iranian regime’s anti-Western propaganda, he attempted to frame the situation as a victory for the regime.

In reference to the coronavirus outbreak that has killed an estimated 16,000 Iranians, Rouhani said, “It was a great opportunity for Americans to apologize … and to lift the unjust and unfair sanctions on Iran.” He went on to say that the continuation of those sanctions would not impact the government’s response to the crisis, which Tehran has downplayed for domestic audiences.

And yet in another speech on Thursday concerning the foreign exchange condition of the regime in the Iranian fiscal year of 1399 (March 2020 to March 2021), Rouhani said: “The Central Bank has provided a good report on the country’s foreign exchange conditions. We will have no problem with our foreign exchange for the year 1399. The priority to provide foreign exchange will be for the health sector, pharmaceutical and medical needs, and the second priority will be for basic goods that we will not have problems until the end of 1399.”

Regime’s  figures state that only a little over 3,000 people have died from Covid-19, but the higher estimates are much more consistent with the situation being reported by Iranian doctors and nurses. As the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK) announced on Thursday, over 16,100 people have so far lost their lives due to the coronavirus outbreak in Iran.

Those medical professionals have described scenes of sheer chaos in Iranian hospitals, with all beds occupied and dozens of patients dying daily. Many have also noted that regime authorities appear to be monitoring their communications and interactions, with an eye toward enforcing a threat of three-year prison sentences for persons caught sharing information that contradicts the official narrative.

Yet when one considers Tehran’s propaganda broadcasts to the Iranian people and also its appeals to the international community, it becomes clear that the official narrative is wildly inconsistent. Rouhani demonstrated this trend with his remarks on Wednesday. In one breath, he highlighted the regime’s weeks-long efforts to use the coronavirus outbreak as a source of leverage for removing US sanctions. And in the next, he attempted to portray those sanctions as being irrelevant to Iran’s management of the crisis.

So what is the truth? Does the regime need sanctions relief in order to prevent a further upsurge in suffering and death? Or is the regime on course to prevent that outcome with or without assistance from Western powers?

The answer is neither. The regime  does already have access to the resources in needs in order to effectively manage the crisis. But this is not all it takes in order to do so effectively. The regime’s authorities also need a measure of competence, and they need the political will to use financial and medical resources for their intended purpose. The past two months have demonstrated that this regime lacks both of those things.

Iran’s coronavirus outbreak got out of control very quickly, for reasons that apparently involve both ignorance and malice. Government documents, recently obtained by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), indicate that the first Iranian cases of Covid-19 were recognized no later than the last week of January. Yet no such cases were publicly acknowledged until February 19. It is difficult to say just how far the outbreak spread in the interim, but the available evidence today points to well over one million cases nationwide.

By concealing the first signs of coronavirus infection, regime authorities deliberately exposed many thousands of the Iranians to the illness. This is because those cases emerged shortly before the 41st anniversary of the regime’s foundation, an event that is always carefully stage-managed by Tehran. Attendance at celebratory parades is mandatory for government employees, while poor residents of rural areas are given financial incentives to appear before state media outlets’ cameras.

Once coronavirus began to imperil nations around the globe, few of those news outlets recognized the connection between the contrived public gatherings and the surge in Covid-19 cases in Iran and throughout the region. To those that are the least skeptical about Iranian regime’s  propaganda, the February 19 announcement of the virus’ arrival in Iran may have even looked like a good-faith effort to protect the public. Rouhani certainly presented it this way.

“Although elections were scheduled for February 21, we could have waited and announced on February 22,” he said. “But we did not do that, and we spoke honestly with the people.” The documents obtained by the PMOI expose this as an obvious lie.

In fact, the regime’s public discourse about coronavirus and those parliamentary elections provided early examples of Tehran’s inability to keep its own talking points straight. One moment, officials like Rouhani and regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that the threat posed by the coronavirus was the reason why voter turnout was so low. The next moment, they insisted that concerns over the disease were manufactured by Western infiltrators and that large numbers of Iranians had gone to the polls in defiance of foreign plots.

Tehran’s official narratives have not become any more consistent since then, except insofar as the regime has more or less settled on one set of talking points for the international community and one set for domestic propaganda. In both cases, the sole motive is to garner sympathy or to mitigate resentment within the target audience. Its all-consuming preoccupation with this goal guarantees that the regime would lack the political will to manage the coronavirus outbreak effectively, even if it cared about people and even if sanctions relief granted it access to foreign capital.

But in absence of that will, as well as the competence to pursue it, the regime has no legitimate claim to sanctions relief at this time or at any other. Wednesday’s cabinet meeting may suggest that Iran regime’s president has given up the fight for that relief, but the regime has never been consistent in its messaging. There is no reason to suppose that it will start now, especially given that Rouhani is far from the highest authority in the theocratic system.

Without question, the regime will soon go back to the international community to insist it is in desperate need of assistance in fighting Covid-19. When that happens, the world should throw Rouhani’s words back at him and make it clear that if the regime wants help, it should stand aside and let foreign experts take the lead, unimpeded by the mullahs’ lies and ulterior motives.