For those countries in the midst of the catastrophic coronavirus epidemic, the loss of lives will be measured not just by those afflicted by the disease but also those whose lives were (or became) entirely reliant on some form of social or governmental support that proved absent when needed most, particularly as the epidemic caused economic stress and eventual recession. For all the apparent failures of the U.S.’s own federal response to the coronavirus epidemic, the U.S. federal government has still taken drastic action, including passage of legislation providing a social safety net for those affected by the epidemic, a $1.5 trillion injection of liquidity into financial markets, and a probable military deployment in the homeland.
However, some of those countries most afflicted by this epidemic will be unable to take similarly necessary action — and the United States bears chief responsibility. Nowhere will that be more apparent than with Iran, where the pace of infection and death accelerates by the day.
Since May 2018, Iran has been the subject of “maximum pressure,” a strategy whose design is intended to cause deep social unrest, economic collapse, and a change in government. U.S. sanctions have caused Iran’s oil exports — its chief source of export revenue — to fall to close to zero, and have targeted those remaining productive sectors of Iran’s economy that bring in revenue. The result has been that Iran’s banks and its industries are cut off from the world, and Iran’s government is starved of the export revenue needed to fund social programs at home.
Already, prior to the coronavirus epidemic, U.S. sanctions had caused a deep and lasting economic depression in Iran, as Iran’s GDP fell by close to 10 percent in 2019 and was set for little recovery in the year ahead. This collapse has led to the hollowing of Iran’s export revenue, which is — like other oil-exporting countries — the primary means by which Iran funds economic and social programs designed to provide assistance to those most in need at home. By imposing a unilateral blockade of the Iranian economy, the Trump administration undermines the ability of Iran’s government to provide for its own people — an intended effect whose hoped-for consequence is an explosion in social unrest.
In normal times, this has tragic consequences for the average Iranian. It is not hyperbole to state that U.S. sanctions since the end of the Bush administration have caused a “lost generation” in Iran, as an entire group of young people, as talented and cosmopolitan as any in the Middle East, have been cut off from the outside world, have had their economic prospects undermined at every turn, and remain stymied from fulfilling their full human and economic potential. As much as those responsible for instituting U.S. sanctions wish to blame Iran for these consequences, the fact is that Iran’s “lost generation” is a consequence of the U.S.’s policy choices, not Iran’s.
But in times like these, where an epidemic has caused Iran to be lit afire with suffering, U.S. sanctions will be a significant added stress for the average Iranian in the days ahead. There is no doubt that Iran’s government failed in its response to the epidemic, but — contrary to what we may have thought not long ago — its response was not so unlike those in the West, including the U.S., which itself appears mere days or weeks from the same tragic circumstances as those that face Iran today. But even if Iran’s government wanted to make the right choices in the days ahead, it is unable to do so, as U.S. sanctions prevent Iran from providing the kind of economic and social safety nets that will become a routinized action for governments around the world. Even if it were a bastion of beneficence, Iran’s government would still remain barred from ensuring the average Iranian — who will face enormous deprivation as the country shutters what remains of its economy — has the economic and social support necessary to sustain day-to-day life.
Most critics of U.S. sanctions miss this fundamental point: U.S. sanctions are doing much more than preventing Iran from importing the medicine and medical goods that it may need to tackle the virus. U.S. sanctions are proving a prohibitive bar to Iran providing the basic goods and services necessary for their people to survive this catastrophic epidemic.
There is no way to make Iran ‘whole’ and ensure that Iran’s government can provide the economic support needed to sustain its population of 80 million people. But there remains a humane path, one that involves the Trump administration providing immediate (if temporary) relief from U.S. sanctions, including sanctions on Iran’s financial sector, its oil sector, and all other productive sectors of Iran’s economy. Even as we all face global recession, permitting Iran some export revenue and allowing those productive sectors of Iran’s economy to sustain work for Iran’s people will have a significant, if measured, effect on Iranian lives.
In the absence of such relief, U.S. sanctions will continue to be cruelly and coldly calculated to cause as much human pain for the Iranian people as possible. The choice is clear.