It is time for a logical discourse. In response to the alarming impact of the deadly coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19, in Iran, posing a growing public health emergency for millions of Iranians, the US government should suspend its robust sanctions regime on Iran.
A temporary suspension of these sanctions for the duration of the epidemic will immediately translate into a major relief for the population and, simultaneously, an enhanced ability of the government to mobilize the necessary resources to combat the problem, notwithstanding the fact that Iran now has the highest number of related fatalities outside China.
Unfortunately, despite a growing international pressure, particularly by some western rights groups, the Trump administration has been unresponsive, limiting itself to symbolic gestures that, in the final analysis, do not amount to much and simply reinforce the existing “maximum pressure strategy” which aims to strangulate Iran’s economy by, among other things, halting Iran’s oil and non-oil exports.
Adding to that strategy, the various ramifications of the virus in Iran, such as the closure of its borders with key neighbors such as Iraq and Turkey, translate into a new, and devastating, layer of punishing sanctions affecting both the government’s sources of income as well as the well-being of the private sector, reeling under the double whammy of US sanctions and sanctions-like tsunami of Covid-19.
Case in point, Iran’s tourist industry, which is focused on religious pilgrims to Iran’s holy cities of Qom and Meshed, has been hit hard affecting the hotel industry, retail, etc. While as of this writing there is no clear estimate of the on-going economic toll of the epidemic, it is a sure bet that in the absence of a speedy end to the spreading epidemic, the government budget will face considerable shortfall, particularly since there is a parallel decline of oil prices impacting Iran’s dwindling oil exports.
Although most Iranian economists tend to fall on the side of caution and predict a short-term blow that can be conceivably recuperated in the post-epidemic environment, there is however a great deal of sense of uncertainty regarding both the duration and scope of the epidemic and its intermediate and or long-term consequences.
Notwithstanding the above-said, it is imperative that the international community pressures the US to suspend its “maximum pressure strategy” that hurts ordinary Iranians and diminishes their ability to provide care for themselves.
A first step, in terms of sanctions waivers for medicine and other “humanitarian goods,” has been allowed by the US Treasury Department, and highlighted by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at his recent Congressional appearance, yet by all accounts this is not sufficient and continues to be hampered by the absence of complementary steps, whereby foreign companies would set aside their fears and concerns regarding any future US reprisals and embark on export trade with Iran.
According to one estimate, there are still hundreds of pending applications for humanitarian waivers at the Treasury Department, reflecting the administration’s tardy attitude with respect to the humanitarian emergency facing Iran today.
In Europe, on the other hand, a Swiss channel for humanitarian assistance has been launched, which is in the incipient stage of becoming operational, in contrast to the EU-3 (Germany, France, England) instrument for trade with Iran to bypass US sanctions, known as INSTEX (Instrument for Trade Exchanges), which remains in embryo several months after its creation due solely to US’ opposition.
Lest we forget, the US sanctions lack legitimacy and are in direct violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which was adopted in July 2015 with the stated objective of facilitating the implementation of the Iran nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Not only that, the continuation of US sanctions in the virus-related environment is also questionable from the prism of international humanitarian laws, irrespective of the Trump administration’s cavalier, if not hostile, attitude toward international law and norms.
To recall the criticism of United Nations Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy, “The reimposition of sanctions against Iran after the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, which had been unanimously adopted by the Security Council with the support of the US itself, lays bare the illegitimacy of this action…”International sanctions must have a lawful purpose, must be proportional, and must not harm the human rights of ordinary citizens, and none of these criteria is met in this case.”
Henceforth, a real show of sympathy toward the Iranian people by both the US and the rest of the international community is urgently called for, whereby a freeze on US sanctions would send meaningful, and tangible, evidence of western goodwill sadly lacking today.
Despite the wealth of evidence of US’ animosity toward Iran, the memory of many Iranians is still fresh regarding the (George W) Bush’s gesture of goodwill in 2003 vis-a-vis the earthquake in Bam, by sending tons of medical supplies as well as a search-and-rescue team, complementing the Europeans’ parallel effort in setting up a field hospital.
In comparison, the nationwide epidemic in Iran is a lot worse than the Bam quake in many respect, requiring urgent international attention to Iran’s growing medical needs.
Yet, with US diplomacy toward Iran settled on the wrong tracks, Pompeo is nowadays toying with the idea of UN “snapback” sanctions on Iran, instead of offering concrete sanctions relief to the coronavirus-hit Iran, thus proving his unreconstructed ill intentions against the country; both Pompeo and other Iran hawks of the Trump administration are likely gloating over the new misfortune befalling their ardent Middle East adversary that continues its ‘great resistance’ against US hegemony, perhaps hoping that the virus is completing the missing links in the sanctions regime and will culminate in new important vulnerabilities for the defiant political system in Iran.
But, if history is our witness, the will of Iranian people is tough to break and they shall overcome, as they have for over four decades now in the face of so many external adversities.