Around a month ago, a television producer informed me that Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh had been assassinated and asked to have me on their program to discuss it. As someone who has been working on issues related to the Iranian nuclear program for the last few years, my anxiety naturally shot through the roof. There was no question that this would cause the risk for conflict in the region — even by way of miscommunication or miscalculation — to dramatically increase.
Despite my alarm over Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, I could not take the interview because I was in the hospital about to receive my last dose of bleomycin, a chemotherapy drug. As an American diagnosed with cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have felt exceptionally grateful to currently live in a country, the United Kingdom, with a national healthcare system that has been able to swiftly deal with my diagnosis without a single question over cost or access to medicine.
After studying how U.S. sanctions have wreaked havoc on the Iranian people and working with diplomats in Europe, rather unsuccessfully, to lessen the damage, I can attest to the fact that Iran’s public health emergency began long before the pandemic. It is no secret, as international media has been riddled with horrific stories about cancer patients and others in Iran dying preventable deaths over the last few years because the healthcare system has been strangled by onerous U.S. sanctions. It is also no secret that these sanctions have wholly failed to get any concessions from the Iranian government since President Trump left the 2015 nuclear deal.
While sanctions purportedly never intend to cause damage to the Iranian people, the U.S. government has not given the proper guidance needed for companies to feel comfortable trading even legal, humanitarian goods with Iran. The ensuing fear to do business under any circumstances has narrowed the Iranian people’s access to food, medicine, and more, causing inflation to reach new heights. On top of it, when COVID-19 began to emerge into a full, global crisis earlier this year, it was clear that low and middle-income countries would be hit the first and worst. Unsurprisingly, given the aforesaid pre-existing pressures, Iran was amongst the list of countries that were witnessing large initial caseloads, causing many former and current senior figures to call for an easing of sanctions on humanitarian trade to help flatten the curve.
Despite continued recent pleas from America’s closest European allies in particular, the United States has continued its policy of “maximum pressure” without any regard for alleviating the humanitarian consequences it has created. Recent reports even allege that the United States is making it difficult for Iran to purchase vaccines, which human rights groups have called for action on. While new waves and strains of the virus are surfacing across the world, Joe Biden’s election is a hopeful sign that American leadership and multilateral cooperation may be possible to help finally end the pandemic in 2021.
If the President-elect is serious about “restoring the soul of the nation,” this must also include extending empathy abroad, including countries like Iran who are suffering because U.S. sanctions are holding back the healthcare response on the virus and other health issues. There are a number of ways that the Biden-Harris team could make early, good-faith gestures to ease the suffering of the Iranian people, namely by giving Iran access to its foreign reserves to be able to purchase humanitarian goods, including vaccines.
According to the Iranian Ministry of Health and Medical Education, there is also a lengthy list of items that Iran desperately needs to buy to treat cancers such as Lymphoma, Crohn’s disease, or even keep premature babies fed and alive. While European companies often used to sell these critical items to Iran, they have now become hesitant without assurances that they will not face punishment from U.S. sanctions. The incoming Biden administration can help alleviate this issue by creating a worldwide temporary general license that would cover testing kits, respirators, and personal protective equipment needed to combat the pandemic, as well as issue more specific guidance and comfort letters for the trade of other items.
The Biden-Harris team should also find ways to mobilize the lending capabilities of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. To date, the IMF has only lent out around a quarter of the $1 trillion it committed to help support countries during the pandemic, namely because the current U.S. administration has slowed these funds being disbursed. For example, the IMF’s technical assessment is that Iran is qualified to receive the $5 billion loan it has requested but a green-light from the United States remains to be seen.
With trust at an incredibly low point between the United States and Iran, theories of how sanctions-related leverage could be used to get “more” out of negotiations are short-sighted. There has been real human suffering, and death, because of these sanctions. This has eroded the trust needed to engage in talks on other issues — trust that can’t return until the United States lives up to its outstanding commitments on the 2015 nuclear deal. For this to happen, the United States needs to actively alleviate the pressure it has placed on the Iranian economy, starting with the humanitarian trade sector which needs urgent attention and should not be held hostage to progress in diplomacy.
As an American who has been able to be quickly and effectively treated for cancer during this pandemic, I cannot bear to watch my government be complicit in the preventable deaths of children, adults, and the elderly in the name of a sanctions policy that has so clearly failed to deliver progress on any of the current U.S. administration’s demands.