Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” on Iran Is Making COVID-19 Worse

Even as Iran’s coronavirus death toll nears 5,000, US sanctions continue to bear down on the country’s health care system.

US president Donald Trump speaks as secretary of state Mike Pompeo and vice president Mike Pence listen during a news briefing on the latest development of the coronavirus outbreak at the White House March 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty

The impact of the sanction regime continues to hold center stage as Iran battles twin humanitarian and economic catastrophes. Indeed, the situation on the ground is continuing to worsen. As of April 17, Iran reported an official death toll of nearly 5,000, and a total number of 77,995 cases. Significant material relief is unlikely in the coming days. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is facing US obstruction over Iran’s request of a $5 billion loan to finance the purchase of medical equipment, and it is scrambling to circumvent the impasse through alternative channels. In spite of this, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has announced an ease of lockdown measures from April 18, which will allow “low-risk business to reopen.” This move is controversial — with experts warning of the potential for a new increase in cases.

In the midst of this crisis, twenty-four senior diplomats have publicly urged the United States to ease sanctions. They are calling for the United States to refrain from using its veto power to block Iran’s loan request to the IMF, as part of a transnational and bipartisan effort captained by former EU foreign minister Federica Mogherini. This appeal is falling on deaf ears, however, given the wider geopolitical pressures surrounding the crisis.

Despite the public health emergency, both Iran and the United States are escalating rhetorical attacks and maintaining a confrontational posture in the Persian Gulf. The latest incident has seen a temporary seizure of a tanker on Iran’s part on April 14, and hazardous maneuvers by Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ships near a US warship on April 15. These episodes have the potential to escalate tensions in a manner reminiscent of last summer’s tanker diplomacy, at a moment when international cooperation is needed the most.

COVID-19’s grip on Iran is aggravated by a combination of multiple domestic and external problems that have been besieging the Iranian people for decades. Yet the scale of the immediate human catastrophe is likely to be dramatically heightened by the inhumane and callous “maximum pressure” policy pursued by the Trump administration even in the midst of a global pandemic.

No amount of realpolitik can justify the sacrifice of human life, but the political ineffectiveness of the current sanction regime adds a veil of bitter irony to the human tragedy. Indeed, the sanction regime imposed on Iran can serve as a warning. It teaches us that traditional ways of dealing with international disputes are lagging dangerously behind the reality of interconnectedness in which we live. Human empathy and solidarity without borders are the only pragmatic cure for myopic nationalism.

People vs Regime

Although the sanctions are a plight on Iran’s health care system, the slowness of the government’s reaction to the outbreak has recently come under scrutiny. Iran’s first case of COVID-19 was reported on February 19, just two days before the parliamentary elections. Politicians have been accused of downplaying the threat in the hopes of a higher voter turnout, with allegations of mismanagement and cover-up from both inside and outside Iran.

As early as February 24, Iranian lawmaker Ahmad Amirabadi-Farahani claimed there had already been fifty deaths in Qom, the original COVID-19 epicenter in Iran. On March 12, satellite images of several lines of new graves in Qom surfaced, seemingly confirming his claims that the scale of the outbreak in the city had been vastly underreported. On March 3, first deputy speaker of Parliament Masoud Pezeshkian went on record saying that the official figures were “not real.” On March 18, WHO officials said that Iran may be underestimating total deaths by a factor of 1:5. The official numbers have now even been disputed by a report by the Iranian Parliament’s Research Center, estimating the actual death toll to be closer to double the official numbers. This represents the highest ranking dissident voice to challenge the government narrative on COVID-19.

Distrust in the regime’s handling of the crisis is also sparked by the fact that Iranian officials are categorically refusing to cooperate with US officials unless they lift the sanction regime, foreign minister Abbas Mousavi said on April 6. Mousavi also condemned the use of covert diplomacy, stressing Iran’s use of official and public channels. This is likely a reply to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s claims that the United States had extended offers of medical help to Iran at the end of February. Pompeo claims to have acted through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which is known to have mediated talks between the two parties in the past. Instead, Iran is continuing its pre-pandemic regional strategy, which is set on an inevitable collision course with the United States.

The latest example is Iran’s persistence in maintaining its influence in Iraq — indeed, its call in recent days for “broadened military cooperation” with Baghdad, widely seen as a bid for greater Iranian influence over its neighbor’s defense policy, is certain to be received with hostility in Washington.

Similarly, COVID-19 has not prompted Iranian officials to revise their nuclear strategy in an attempt to win greater European cooperation. Instead, the Iranian Parliament has threatened to continue uranium enrichment unless the EU can “guarantee that Iran can sell oil no less than before US withdrawal, i.e. 2.6 million barrels a day.” This pattern of behavior is hardly that of a state faced with an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Instead, it seems that Iranian policymakers have opted to protect the regime and safeguard their geopolitical interests over protecting their people. Nevertheless, it is the Iranian people who are suffering from the lack of medical equipment resulting from sanctions.

Old Legacies, New Challenges

Such economic sanctions aren’t new: in fact, Iran has been subject to them since the hostage crisis of 1979. This was set off when a group of young Iranian students attacked the US Embassy in Tehran and took fifty-two US citizens hostages. The hostages would only be released in 1981, in circumstances tainted by the infamous Iran-Contra affair. The genesis of the sanction regime was both geopolitical and ideological from the start; what was at stake was both the control of the Persian Gulf and the Islamist brand of anti-imperialism advanced by the revolutionaries. This still mars US-Iran relations today. During the latest diplomatic crisis, following the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on January 3, President Donald Trump threatened retaliation against fifty-two Iranian cultural sites, a direct reference to the number of Americans taken hostage in 1979.

Although the Clinton and Bush administrations made use of sanctions, it was only during Barack Obama’s first term that the current comprehensive sanction regime was established. A key move came in 2011, legalizing the cessation of US financial transactions with any institution caught doing business with Iran. This provision is at the core of many of the chronic economic disfunctions that are vexing Iran during the current COVID-19 outbreak.

Even though sale of medical supplies is technically not banned by the sanctions, Iran cannot buy personal protective equipment and ventilators because sanctions are impeding its access to the international financial market. On February 27, a Humanitarian Corridor was opened to help ease the impact of sanctions on Iran’s health care supplies. In actuality, the move provided almost no guarantee to safeguard third parties from US sanctions and has thus proven ineffective.

The United States illegitimately withdrew from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal in May 2018, in spite of international institutions’ claims that Iran was in fact adhering to its pledges. The nuclear deal had brought some measure of sanctions relief, which have since been reimposed. On March 17, Pompeo announced that the State Department had blacklisted nine entities based in South Africa, Hong Kong, and China, as well as three Iranian individuals, for engaging in “significant transactions” to trade in Iranian petrochemicals. On March 26, fifteen individuals and five companies were sanctioned over alleged involvement with the IRGC, which the United States considers a terrorist group.

The sanction regime has affected Iran’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak not only through current trade and financial restrictions, but also through the way it has shaped Iran’s economy over the past two decades. Fear of disrupting economic ties with China, one of its only remaining trading partners, had prevented Iran from discontinuing flights from Wuhan sooner, aiding the spread of the virus.

According to figures by the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), China accounts for 37 percent of Iran’s imports and 31 percent of its exports, in spite of the sharp drop in China’s import of Iran’s oil since 2018. Iran’s economic overreliance on the People’s Republic has been manufactured by the sanction regime; if the sanction regime had not left Iran hooked to Beijing as its only trading lifeline, the political and economic cost of closing the borders to China would not have been as high for Iran.

At the core of the US “maximum pressure” policy is the idea that by imposing draconian restriction on a country’s access to international trade and finance, it is possible to engineer a regime change. Yet, even apart from the dismal humanitarian effects of such sanctions, we need only point to the brutally effective repression of the November 2019 protests in Iran to show that such hopes are misplaced.

Part of the US political establishment has long held the view that replacing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s current regime is of paramount importance — and thus doggedly persists in such a policy. This virulent brand of American interventionism is defined by the categorical ostracization of Iran from any role in the political architecture of the region. This idea is extremely dangerous. While Iran’s involvement beyond its own borders is undeniable, it is also an integral part of the fragile state structure that still holds the region together in the wake of twenty years of disastrous interventionist wars.

Cooperate or Perish

The current pandemic is not taking place in a geopolitical vacuum — and the crisis is bound to alter the regional power conflict between Iran and the United States, in Iraq as in Afghanistan.

Iran’s presence in Iraq has already been the source of increasing tension over the last year. This was especially palpable during the Iraqi anti-government protests in October 2019, after which Iranian-backed militias were accused of firing live ammunition at the protesters. The assassination of Soleimani temporarily redirected the Iraqis’ rage toward the United States, as the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution demanding the departure of all US troops. Public outrage soon turned to Iranian influence again after Iran’s missile attack on an Iraqi bases on January 8 in retaliation for Soleimani’s death.

Iraq’s social fabric is thinly stretched, and the next political crisis is only a step away. The toll of a war started in 2003 has born heavily on the health care system. Medical professionals that work on the battlefield have voiced great anxiety for the number of casualties that an outbreak of COVID-19 could cause. There is little doubt that a crisis of that proportion could bring the Iraqi state over the brink.

Afghanistan has also been torn by decades of wars since the Soviet invasion in 1979. There is already great worry of a potential undetected outbreak of COVID-19, as many Afghan migrants have crossed the border from Iran in the last few weeks. This crisis, much like in the case of Iraq, threatens to hit Afghanistan at a potential historical juncture, where talks between the Taliban and Kabul’s government are on the table, as well as the United States’ conditional promise of troop withdrawal.

Beyond the initial human impact of COVID-19, it is difficult to predict the long-term effects of the crisis on the region. The weaker and the more overstretched Iranian state institutions become, the less capable of controlling both the outbreak of COVID-19 and the various militias they have armed — potentially breeding more conflict, and hence more refugees.

This chain of effects suggests how damaging the “maximum pressure” policy could prove. As World Health Organization (WHO) experts have warned, current quarantine measures will prove useless unless time bought for the health care system is used to identify and contain the spread, otherwise we risk a second peak after the lifting of lockdowns, as countries in East Asia are dealing with now.

While domestic tracking and containment measures are paramount, all of these will be virtually useless unless COVID-19 is approached at a global level. Even if the virus were to be effectively contained in Europe and in the United States in the next months, if pockets of active outbreaks persist unchecked in the Middle East and beyond, there is no guarantee that further outbreaks will not return here as well.

COVID-19 is first and foremost a humanitarian emergency. However, both the United States and the Iranian governments, in their myopic obsession with relative gains in their regional chess game, have failed to respond appropriately. The focus should be on international cooperation to limit the spread of the virus, and on attempting to spare countries that simply do not have the medical, institutional, and economic resources to withstand the crisis. But in order to do so, we ought to move beyond a zero-sum game that is blind to the interconnectedness of the modern world.

Comprehensive sanction regimes are a vestige of a model of policy-making that belongs in the past. We cannot hope to treat modern international crises like sieges to distant citadels. In the age of globalized interconnectedness, military victory is meaningless without political cooperation and international solidarity. Let us hope that we learn from this current crisis, so that we may be more willing to form a common front against the upcoming challenges of climate change and global economic crisis.