The COVID-19 outbreak in Iran is a disaster for the Iranian people, with thousands already dead, tens of thousands more infected, and medical professionals working around the clock at profound risk to save as many lives as they can.
Any American living through the pandemic should be able to sympathize, knowing that the Iranian people are dealing with the same struggle against a deadly virus, though one that is rendered far more difficult thanks to crushing U.S. sanctions. Unfortunately, for many Iran hawks who have championed the administration’s maximum pressure campaign, the sanctions are more valuable than the Iranian lives that could be saved through temporary sanctions relief.
There is a clear-cut need for relief now, with cases continuing to mount and continued delays for Iran’s public health sector in securing needed supplies. Moreover, with the sanctions continuing to pressure the entire Iranian economy that 83 million people depend on — making it harder to purchase food, medicine, and basic hygienic supplies — many of the most vulnerable Iranians can’t afford to stay home and self-isolate. Hence, the growing call in Congress, the United Nations and allied nations for lifting U.S. sanctions on a temporary basis.
In the face of this life or death juncture, sanctions proponents have taken a stand for the morally indefensible status quo. Perhaps no other individual has gone as far to securitize sanctions relief as Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who opposed lifting sanctions for tangible nuclear concessions and has made no secret about his desire to start a war.
Dubowitz and his FDD colleague, John Bolton disciple Richard Goldberg, try to make the debate not about the Iranian people crushed between pandemic, governmental ineptitude, and sanctions, but the Iranian regime itself — a far easier target given its continued abuses and negligent response to the crisis.
According to Dubowitz and Goldberg, sanctions don’t target humanitarian trade and the regime has vast fortunes that it simply chooses not to spend on the pandemic. With these dubious assertions, they challenge that those advocating for sanctions relief are “exploiting” the coronavirus crisis to pander to the regime.
Of course, it was FDD that exploited President Trump’s irrational hatred for all things Obama to push for the destruction of the nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions that are the source of humanitarian complications today. The U.S. has tried narrow carve outs for humanitarian trade with Iran, only to consistently encounter complications when financial sector sanctions cut off the Iranian economy from banks around the world.
Pathways may exist for a trickle of aid but are nowhere near what is needed to ensure a robust pandemic response. Similarly, on Dubowitz and Goldberg’s assertion that the regime is hoarding wealth that could be used domestically, this is a bit like suggesting that the U.S. government didn’t need a stimulus package to combat coronavirus since Trump himself is personally wealthy and the U.S. spends too much at the Pentagon. Regardless, the U.S. shouldn’t have to wait for an epiphany from Iran’s leaders in order to take tangible steps to help, now, by easing sanctions for the duration of the crisis.
United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), meanwhile, has persisted in its efforts to “name and shame” companies facilitating humanitarian trade with Iran despite the coronavirus outbreak, which makes that trade more important than ever before.
Hence, while the administration continues to trumpet its humanitarian exemptions that exist on paper, UANI works to ensure that the exemptions don’t exist in practice — and is routinely rewarded for its work with speeches from major administration figures. A recent article from the organization’s President, David Ibsen, helps explain the mindset that allows one to continue to target humanitarian trade, exacerbating suffering amid a disastrous pandemic. “It is the Iranian people that suffer through this cruel regime, and the Iranian people these sanctions ultimately wish to save,” wrote Ibsen. So, the suffering is for their own good, according to the twisted reasoning of Ibsen and UANI.
According to the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Danielle Pletka, lifting sanctions “will serve only to prop up the system that continues to tyrannize the Iranian people.” Also from AEI, Iraq war proponent Michael Rubin warned that “[t]o lift sanctions would empower Iran’s military, not help those most in need.” Similarly, Masih Alinejad — a host for U.S. government funded Voice of America — waded into the domestic U.S. policy debate over sanctions relief and warned that “the Islamic Republic has no trouble funding its security forces, including the Revolutionary Guards, or sending money to Hezbollah or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. If you are against war, then you shouldn’t fund a regime that promotes war in Lebanon and Syria.”
Yet, far from punishing the oppressive state, sanctions have historically empowered authoritarian regimes like Iran by limiting alternative centers of wealth and power, increasing reliance on black markets and corrupt institutions like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). If Iran’s public sector is unable to fill demand for food and medical goods amid the pandemic, the IRGC is going to be filling the gap.
To Pletka’s credit, she does note the significant economic pain caused by Trump sanctions — including mass unemployment and the skyrocketing costs of basic goods. Similarly, Alinejad admits that “[t]here’s no doubt that sanctions have indeed rendered life difficult for people in Iran.” However, neither is able to recognize that inflicting such profound damage — particularly amid a pandemic — is both morally backwards and strategically unwise.
We also know from experience that sanctions relief under the nuclear deal led to Iran spending the preponderance of its relief on domestic economic needs, not foreign military adventure, despite the chorus of voices seeking to convince us otherwise. And, given that the public sector received relief while the IRGC remained sanctioned, the hardline leadership of the Revolutionary Guard fought the nuclear deal and has celebrated the U.S. withdrawal.
Additionally, since maximum pressure was imposed following the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iran has become more assertive in its military posture — the exact opposite of the stated goals of maximum pressure. To the contrary, relaxing sanctions may take us off a collision course with Iran, opening up opportunities for sorely needed de-escalatory measures — including another prisoner swap or a halt to nuclear or regional escalation.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that those who championed the disastrous war against Iraq, or who are pushing for a similar fate to befall Iran, would oppose efforts to reduce the suffering of the Iranian people. For them, they’ve already justified the suffering of the Iranian people as necessary to their geopolitical aims. They’d like you to believe that the U.S. is not responsible, at all, for the economic calamity it is helping to inflict amid a disastrous pandemic. They are wrong. The U.S. cannot control the Iranian regime’s negligent response, but it can avoid contributing to the suffering of the Iranian people by easing sanctions for the duration of the crisis. That is what George W. Bush did after the 2003 earthquake in Bam, and it is what the Trump administration should do today amid the Coronavirus pandemic in Iran.