The coronavirus pandemic’s impact in Iran, which already claimed over 1,800 lives and infected more than 23,000 people, is one of the world’s more troubling examples of widespread infection, with insufficient medical resources to treat the victims and a staggering anticipated death toll.
While public health experts and human rights advocates all point to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions regime against Iran as contributing to the public health crisis, sanctions advocates in the Trump administration and at two ultra hawkish think tanks claim that the “humanitarian trade” sanctions exemption is sufficient to address Iran’s medical needs.
But the reality is that advocates of an expansive sanctions campaign have been working to deny Iranians the staples of daily life in pursuit of bringing the regime to its knees or fomenting regime collapse. And it’s likely why to this day, the Trump administration, and its pro-Iran war/regime change allies are reluctant to relent to massive domestic and international pressure to relieve sanctions on Iran.
Indeed, remarks and actions from sanctions hawks in the State Department, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) illustrate their desire to inflict collective punishment on Iran as a means of generating political instability and state collapse.
Amid the crisis, on March 17, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new sanctions against Iran, telling reporters, “We have an open humanitarian channel to facilitate legitimate transactions even while ensuring our maximum pressure campaign denies terrorists money.”
But that assessment of the humanitarian channel isn’t widely shared and, despite Pompeo’s repeated assertions that the Trump administration offered Iran help to deal with the coronavirus crisis, he hasn’t provided details of what those offers entail.
“Our research showed that in practice, humanitarian exemptions in the U.S. comprehensive sanctions regime have been ineffective in offsetting the strong reluctance of companies and banks to conduct trade with Iran, including the humanitarian trade that is presumably legal,” Human Rights Watch Iran researcher Tara Sepheri Far told Responsible Statecraft. “The Iranian healthcare system, both in terms of access to specialized medicine and also with regards to access to medical equipment, has taken a toll as a result of sanctions,” she added.
Even Pompeo acknowledged that collective punishment and threat of a humanitarian crisis were very much part of the sanctions strategy he was pursuing.
“The leadership has to make a decision that they want their people to eat,” said Pompeo in 2018. “They have to make a decision that they want to use their wealth to import medicine and not use their wealth to fund [Iran’s Quds Force commander] Qassem Soleimani’s travels around the Middle East, with causing death and destruction.”
Two of the most prominent groups advocating for “maximum pressure” against Iran, even in the face of the coronavirus epidemic, have repeatedly called for collective punishment against Iranians.
Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of FDD, a think tank that has regularly called for harsh sanctions and preventive military action against Iran, has repeatedly called for punitive measures against Iran’s entire population.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last April, Dubowitz urged lawmakers to “build a sanctions wall” with the goal of “crippl[ing] key sectors of the [Iranian] economy and lead to larger protests.” He added, “[T]he resulting economic and political instability could be leverage for a better, comprehensive deal.”
In a September Fox News appearance, Dubowitz again argued that widespread collective punishment of Iranians was a desirable strategy in bringing pressure on Iran’s leadership to negotiate with the Trump administration about their nuclear program.
“I think the Iranians are in a situation where they are running out of foreign exchange reserves, they’re not going to have the money to pay for imports that they need to run their factories, with factories closing they’re going to have massive unemployment, and so their situation is getting worse every day,” said Dubowitz. “And I think the administration, with a few moves, could actually bring about that kind of economic collapse which will then put the regime in a position where they’ll have to choose between negotiations and the survival of its regime.”
This mentality isn’t a recent phenomenon. Squeezing the Iranian people has been a goal for some time. FDD “freedom scholar” Michael Ledeen made this argument even more bluntly back in 2012 when he openly celebrated ordinary Iranians being unable to afford chickens, claimed this was largely the effect of sanctions, and applauded the fact that Iranians were blaming their leadership for hardships that were largely out of the government’s control.
“[T]here are a lot of very angry Iranians, who not surprisingly are blaming their government for this foul state of affairs,” wrote Ledeen. “In part, the government is blameless, since the cost of imports and the cost of feed grain have been driven up by the sanctions. But then again, the behavior of the government provoked the sanctions in the first place, and the singularly incompetent economic policies of the regime probably constitute the most important cause of the crisis.”
A U.S. senator at the time was even more explicit in promoting the strategy of denying Iranians basic foodstuffs. “It’s okay to take the food out of the mouths of the citizens from a government that’s plotting an attack directly on American soil,” said then-Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) in reference to sanctions that might impose food shortages on Iranians.
Kirk now serves on the advisory board of UANI, a group that has engaged in a lengthy campaign to pressure all companies, including those engaged in U.S. government licensed humanitarian trade with Iran, to halt their business with the Islamic Republic. (Kirk’s former foreign policy adviser, Richard Goldberg, later went to work at FDD where he promoted military options against Iran. And in an unusual arrangement, he later went to work in Trump’s National Security Council while FDD continued to pay his salary and travel expenses. There Goldberg advocated for an expansive sanctions regime against Iran.)
UANI applauded the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy for “wreaking maximum havoc on Iran’s economy” Its CEO Mark Wallace, endorsed “economic isolation … to the point of being unbearable.”
Indeed, both UANI and FDD’s fondness for imposing collective punishment on Iranian civilians in order to pressure Iran’s leadership to make concessions on its nuclear program is also reflected in statements from some of their biggest donors.
GOP and Trump megadonor Sheldon Adelson contributed at least $1.5 million to FDD by 2011 (FDD claims he is no longer a funder) and contributed nearly one-third of UANI’s 2013 budget, sending $500,000 to the group.
Adelson told an audience at Yeshiva University in October 2013 that Obama should launch a preventive nuclear attack on a swath of uninhabited Iranian desert and threaten that Iran will be “wiped out” if the country’s leadership doesn’t dismantle their nuclear program.
UANI’s top funder, billionaire Thomas Kaplan, is an investor whose companies have looked to profit from “political unrest” in the Middle East. At UANI’s 2018 conference, Kaplan was presented with a framed Iranian rial by Wallace to recognize his support of UANI and their shared efforts to devalue Iran’s currency.
The calls for economic collapse, military strikes, cheering food shortages, and demanding more “maximum pressure” come at a severe humanitarian cost. But for many in the Trump administration and their allies, that’s precisely the point, which explains why, up until now at least, that President Trump has refused to suspend U.S. sanctions on Iran.
“During last year’s nearly-nationwide flood relief, problems with licenses required for transferring funds to Iran slowed down the relief efforts,” said Far. “The COVID-19 outbreak is more of a serious threat by order of magnitude. There’s a collective responsibility to ensure Iran’s access to resources they need to protect the health of millions of Iranians.”