U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo prepares for morning interviews with FOX and CBS news at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on November 4, 2018 (Photo: U.S. State Department)
How a misleading report on Iran from a hawkish ‘think tank’ made its way to Trump administration talking points

Whatever pain COVID-19 inflicts, it offers a golden opportunity for Washington lobbyists committed to tough sanctions against Iran. ‘Regime change’ or ‘regime collapse’, they say, is now within grasp if only the United States stands firm.

United States sanctions have not just spawned a proliferating industry profiting lawyers, bureaucrats and “expert” consultants. They have created an opaque maze around which “bullet points” bounce from lobby groups and “think tanks” to the media to government, becoming “facts” through repetition and circular sourcing.

Leading the Iran intervention lobby is the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Its CEO Mark Dubowitz is tireless on Twitter and in the media. As the pandemic helps blur any line between opinion and facts, FDD can more easily market its paid advocates as “experts” purportedly moved solely by evidence.

On April 5, FDD published a “research memo” entitled “Should the United States Lift Sanctions on Iran to Address Its Coronavirus Outbreak?” The answer, unsurprisingly, was no.

The memo opens with the claim that “Iran is the epicenter of the coronavirus in the Middle East.” This reflects “the regime’s mismanagement” of the response and failure to “take precautionary measures.”

Iran spread COVID-19 to Lebanon, FDD claims, based on credible reports that the virus arrived with an infected air passenger from Iran. Why single out Lebanon? Because one of Iran’s top regional allies, Hezbollah, is in the government. So the FDD memo quotes May Chidiac, a Lebanese journalist and former cabinet member, blaming Hezbollah for delays in stopping flights from Iran. The FDD memo notes, apparently without irony, that Chidiac herself tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from Paris.

All epicenters are equal, but some are more equal than others. At the time the FDD memo was published, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. were surging and so was the death toll. Of course, FDD didn’t call the U.S. an “epicenter” nor criticize President Trump for “mismanagement” or the failure to “take precautionary measures.”

But whether or not Iran stands alone in corruption or mismanaging COVID-19, should the U.S. ease sanctions against Iran for the pandemic’s duration, as suggested by the World Health Organization (WHO)? Should President Donald J. Trump respond positively to an open letter from 24 former senior diplomats and defense officials from European and the U.S. asking his administration to mitigate sanctions in order to save “potentially the lives in hundreds of thousands” in Iran and worldwide?

FDD says no. This is firstly because Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reportedly claimed Iran can produce everything it needs for COVID-19. Similar claims have been made, with equal credibility, by many leaders round the world: Trump has been especially forthright in pooh-poohing international co-operation.

Secondly, Iranians actually want sanctions. Dubowitz, who has apparently never visited Iran, understands how all Iranians think. “The Iranian people know this is the wrong time to give sanctions relief to this regime,” he tweeted in a video on March 27.

FDD also claims that U.S. sanctions don’t target humanitarian goods, asserting that Iran’s response to COVID-19 has been unaffected by U.S. sanctions. As evidence, FDD says European Union pharmaceutical exports to Iran declined only 5 percent (€738 million to €698 million) in the “first full year after the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions in 2018,” a period when total EU exports nearly halved (€8.9 billion in 2018 to €4.5 billion).

Given that the U.S. ramped up sanctions in November 2018, six months after Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May, FDD contends that a year-on-year comparison of 2018 to 2019 “provides a good, though imperfect, approximation of the sanctions’ impact.”

But the European Commission web page shows that EU exports to Iran had already fallen in 2018 as businesses anticipated an escalation in U.S. sanctions even before Trump abandoned the JCPOA. EU pharmaceutical exports to Iran in 2016 came to €888 million before falling to €750 million in 2019, a drop of 16 percent and three times the figure cited by the FDD.

Moreover, an October 2019 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that U.S. exemptions for humanitarian goods did not offset the reluctance of either U.S. or European companies and banks to risk U.S. sanctions by exporting or financing humanitarian goods

The HRW report concluded that sanctions since 2018 “pose a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health and access to essential medicines” and have “almost certainly contributed to documented shortages — ranging from a lack of critical drugs for epilepsy patients to limited chemotherapy medications for Iranians with cancer.”

Earlier this month, HRW was more specific, pointing out in a news release that the definition of drugs under U.S. export regulations “excludes certain vaccines, biological and chemical products, and medical devices — including medical supplies, instruments, equipment, equipped ambulances, institutional washing machines for sterilization, and vehicles carrying medical testing equipment. This means that some of the equipment crucial to fighting the virus, such as decontamination equipment, and full-mask respirators, require a special license.”

HRW cited research by the Washington Post showing that the rate of approvals by the U.S. Treasury for special licenses for the export of medicine and medical devices to Iran had declined by over 50 percent during the first quarter of 2016 to 10 percent during the first quarter of 2019 – a drastic decline that makes it very difficult to conclude that U.S. sanctions have had no impact on Iran’s response to COVID-19.

What of FDD’s call for any aid to Iran to go through “reliable” NGOs? Relief International, an NGO operating in Iran with a U.S. Treasury license, has itself complained that international aid to Iran during the early part of the crisis was hampered by delays in clarifying legal issues over sanctions.

In a detailed letter to the Lancet, Britain’s most authoritative peer-reviewed medical journal, published April 6, five public health experts in London and Tehran, including a deputy Iranian health minister, wrote: “Even before COVID-19, Iran’s health system was feeling the effect of the sanctions. Their impact is now severe because they restrict the government’s ability to raise funds or to import essential goods. Of the ten countries with the highest number of recorded cases of COVID-19 to date, Iran is the poorest.”

“Essential medicines and medical equipment are technically exempt from sanctions, but their availability is restricted by the effect of sanctions…reducing manufacturing and trade capacity, and on foreign exchange,” according to the letter. “Consequently, although approximately 184,000 hospital and primary health-care staff are working to fight COVID-19, their efforts are thwarted by shortages of test kits, protective equipment, and ventilators. WHO has provided crucial supplies, sufficient equipment for 31,000 workers, but supplies are still substantially short of what is needed.”

The five authors backed the easing of U.S. sanctions for the pandemic’s duration, citing a likely fall in world economic growth: “The harsh obstacles presented by US sanctions mean that Iran could bear a disproportionate share of this fiscal and health shock, leading to its probable economic collapse and inability to contain the virus that has implications for the entire world.”

But collapse may suit the FDD. Eric Edelman, FDD senior advisor, recently argued in Foreign Affairs that “economic collapse” leading to “regime change” should be a goal of U.S. policy.

While FDD’s arguments sit uneasily with some of the findings of public-health professionals, they are often echoed in official U.S. documents. On the same day that the Lancet article was published, for example, the State Department released a “fact sheet” entitled “Iran’s Sanctions Relief Scam.”

It began by quoting President Trump’s words of five days before: I think the Iranian [people] love America. I think they’d love to be free…They love what we stand for…if they need help with respect to the virus, we have the greatest medical professionals in the world. We’d love to send them over.”

The “fact sheet” continues: “New graffiti in a Tehran suburb reads ‘The Islamic Republic in Iran is the real coronavirus.’”

“Iran’s slick foreign influence campaign to obtain sanctions relief is not intended for the relief or health of the Iranian people but to raise funds for its terror operations. Since 2012, the regime has spent over $16 billion to fund its terror proxies abroad while Iranian healthcare services have remained woefully underfunded,” the document claims.

This $16 billion figure, which is also quoted in FDD’s memo, goes unexplained. Even if true, the total compares unfavorably with the amount of weaponry Washington transferred to Iran’s chief regional rivals, including the more than $30 billion the U.S. has provided Israel in military aid and nearly $22 billion in actual arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during the same period (not including existing contracts to sell tens of billions of dollars more in arms to the latter two countries both of which have been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in their five-year-old mlitary intervention in Yemen’s civil war).

Away from the Washington DC regime change lobby scene, what is the situation on the ground in Iran?

Those I spoke with paint a mixed picture. Some criticized government officials, the security forces, and the many Iranians who took off on holiday to the Caspian during the pandemic. But some also praised the professionalism and commitment of health workers – a contrast in Iran, as elsewhere during the pandemic, to leaders eager to blame others.

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, Professor of Economics at Virginia Tech, paid tribute to the sacrifices and achievements of Iran’s health workers in Foreign Policy in March:

“Iran’s health sector has a distinguished past under the Islamic Republic. Three decades ago, Iranian health professionals fought to reduce infant and maternal mortality in rural areas. Their success…helped raise the country’s life expectancy to levels that more developed countries enjoy. The professionals that generation trained are today on the frontlines of the fight to contain the new coronavirus.”

Salehi-Isfahani goes on to wonder if these same health-workers – who like other professional Iranians are keen to engage internationally – will emerge eventually from the pandemic with more influence in their country’s future. Many have already died. Their cause seems poorly served by Washington lobbyists demanding collapse.

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