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Arash Azizi

Why sanctions on Iran should be lifted now

The number coronavirus deaths in Iran is likely much higher than official reports [AFP]

Date of publication: 9 April, 2020

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Comment: In the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, sanctions have become an aid to a humanitarian catastrophe that could facilitate the death of thousands, writes Arash Azizi.

They have all called for easing of the US sanctions on Iran which have hampered the country's response to the coronavirus pandemic and thus endangered the lives of millions of people in Iran and the region. 

Iran was an early epicentre of the coronavirus crisis and it has been hit particularly hard. At the time of writing, it has registered about 65,000 confirmed cases and 3,993 deaths. The real number is likely to be much higher. 

Those asking for lifting of the sanctions are not blind to the criminal failures of the Iranian regime. A statement signed by 11 democratic senators including Chris Murphy and Tim Kaine (Hillary Clinton's running mate in 2016), affirms that shortcomings in Iran (and Venezuela) are "largely due to their endemic corruption, mismanagement, and authoritarian behaviour". But it also acknowledges an obvious fact: the US sanctions have "exacerbated the failing medical response." 

Kenneth Roth, executive director of US-based rights body Human Rights Watch, affirms that "Iranians are saddled with a brutal, self-serving government that refused to even release wrongfully detained people in crowded prisons despite the risk of coronavirus."

But he is quick to add: "It is wrong and callous for the Trump administration to compound Iranians' misery by depriving them of access to the critical media resources they urgently need." In the demand for lifting of the sanctions, Roth is joined by the former Chilean president and current UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

There is a US precedent for such humanitarian gestures. The US senators' letter points to the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran which killed 26,000 people and led the administration of President George W. Bush to suspend the sanctions and send medical aid to Iran. This was the same president who, merely a year earlier, had denoted Iran as central to the "Axis of Evil", together with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Kim Jong-il's North Korea. 

Many Iranian citizens can tell stories of relatives suffering from the scarcity of cancer medicines

The governments of the European Union have understood the gravity of Iran's humanitarian crisis. EU leadership has sent 20 million euros in aid which will go to the World Health Organization and fund deliveries of equipment and provision of technical support.

They have also pledged to support 
Iran's request for help from the International Monetary Fund. Furthermore, the crisis has led to the first ever use of Instex, a trading mechanism jointly set up by Iran and France, the UK and Germany - the European parties to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 - to allow them to bypass US sanctions.

On 31 March, London, Paris and Berlin confirmed that the first Instex-facilitated transaction had taken place and had helped the export of medical goods to Iran. 

The Trump administration, however, shows no sign of easing the sanctions or its maximum pressure policy. And last month, Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei shocked many by publicly endorsing conspiracy theories that claimed the virus had "perhaps" been manufactured by the Americans. This could very well be possible, Khamenei said, as Iran's enemies were hard at work, including among the Jinn, supernatural creatures in Middle Eastern mythology.

Far from a one-off claim, the Iranian foreign ministry's Twitter account made things worse by sharing a Chinese article that made ludicrous claims about the supposed American origins of the coronavirus, 
linking to a notorious source of conspiracy theories. 

Twitter a spectacle that reveals the depths to which the Iran-US relations have fallen. The respective Persian-language Twitter accounts of Tehran and Washington exchange venomous barbs - a shockingly inappropriate course of action in the midst of a global pandemic that has hit both countries particularly hard. This is all the more sad when we recall the nurturing diplomatic links that brought the two countries much closer just four years ago. 

In justifying the continuity of the sanctions, the Trump administration uses talking points to mislead the public.

One is the claim that the sanctions don't affect medicine. While medical items might be formally exempt, the severe US sanctions have hit the Iranian economy so hard and have made any financial transaction so difficult that the country's health sector has definitely been affected.

Numerous reports from
Human Rights Watch, ReutersForeign Policy and the think tank Atlantic Council have documented the wide-ranging adverse health effects of the sanctions. Anecdotally, many Iranian citizens can tell stories of relatives suffering from the scarcity of cancer medicines or similar problems.

Even under the Obama administration, where the carefully constructed sanctions were meant to bring targeted pressure on the regime, the health sector was hit as hard as the rest of the economy. Under Trump, the targeted approach has been replaced with wide-ranging blanket sanctions that have pummeled the Iranian economy as a whole.

The US-led sanctions on Iran have long been morally fraught and politically regressive

Their ultimate goal seems to be bringing the Iranian regime near to state collapse, a scenario that will be a massive geopolitical catastrophe and is unlikely to lead to democratisation. 

The other talking point claims that lifting the sanctions will not get any help to the Iranian people as all financial proceeds will go to fund Iran's support for its regional allies, i.e. such havoc-wreaking groups as Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Lebanese Hezbollah. These claims ignore Iran's domestic conversation about the sanctions that have long acknowledged one thing: The sanctions help the hardliners.

The likes of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have the means to circumvent the sanctions; it is the ordinary Iranians that have always been their primary victims. Not for nothing did the IRGC leadership strongly oppose the diplomatic talks that led to the 2015 Iran deal. They saw the lifting of sanctions and opening up of Iran to business as a mortal threat to their interests.
 

The US-led sanctions on Iran have long been morally fraught and politically regressive. In the midst of the global pandemic, they've become an aid to a humanitarian catastrophe that could facilitate the death of thousands in Iran and beyond, just as they strengthen the most regressive elements in the Iranian regime. The call for their urgent lifting must continue. 

Arash Azizi is a writer, translator and PhD candidate at NYU.

Follow him on Twitter: @Arash_Tehran

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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