COVID-19 reignites Iran sanctions debate


Fars News Agency

COVID-19 patients receive treatment at the Imam Khomeini Hospital in Tehran, Iran.

As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts daily life worldwide, it has played an unexpected role in reviving the debate in American politics about sanctions on Iran.

The U.S. has a long history of sanctions against Iran, but most recently, the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and imposed a fresh wave of sanctions in hopes of reforming Iran’s nuclear program, human rights record and actions in the Middle East. To date, the sanctions have cost $200 billion to the Iranian economy, mostly by decimating Iran’s oil exports.

Iran was one of the earliest countries to be hard-hit by the novel coronavirus. As of 10:32:29 a.m. today, it has at least 97,424 recorded cases and 6,203 confirmed deaths, with more cases potentially unreported (Johns Hopkins University CSSE).

With this crisis have come renewed calls for sanctions relief from the U.S. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “It is a good time now for them to apologize for their wrongdoing. It is [a] humanitarian issue and nobody would rebuke them and ask why they retreated.” Economists see COVID-19 as a unique threat to Iran’s economy, projecting that Iran’s GDP will decrease by one-third as a result.

Iran has also reported shortages of medical equipment due to U.S. sanctions, inhibiting their ability to handle the influx of coronavirus patients. While the sanctions technically exempt medical equipment, the U.S. can apply secondary sanctions to companies and banks that do business with Iran, potentially creating a chilling effect that makes it difficult for Iran to buy equipment such as ventilators.

Iran’s call for relaxed sanctions has gained traction internationally from Russia, China, the European Union and various human rights groups. Domestically, over 30 Congressional Democrats led by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez signed a letter in late March asking President Donald Trump to relax sanctions. Presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden also publicly called for sanctions relief.

“Pandemics know no borders,” Congressional Democrats wrote in the letter. “Allowing this crisis to become more dire in Iran threatens significant harm not only to the people of Iran but also to people in the United States and around the world.”

Opponents of Trump’s Iran policy argue that the sanctions unfairly penalize Iranian citizens by hurting their economy while doing little to change the Iranian government’s behavior. Since his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and subsequent ramping up of sanctions, tensions between Iran and the U.S. have only increased, and Iran has not stopped its support of militant groups in countries such as Yemen.

In contrast, proponents of sanctions oppose capitulating to Iran’s demands, arguing that Iran is using COVID-19 as a bargaining chip to shirk responsibility for their dangerous actions in the Middle East. They see sanctions relief as less of a humanitarian gesture and more of a ploy to enrich the regime’s leaders with oil revenues. On March 28, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that Iran’s request for sanctions relief “isn’t about fighting the pandemic. It’s about cash for the regime leaders.”

Opponents of sanctions relief also point to missteps in the Iranian government’s disease response as the main reason why Iran was impacted so severely by the outbreak. While Iran was one of the first nations outside of China to face a COVID-19 outbreak in early February, the government has faced criticism of downplaying the threat, not instituting social distancing guidelines nor a lockdown until late March. Additionally, while the U.S. government offered medical aid, the Iranian government refused, likely because of the poor optics of accepting help from America.

Subsequently, this response has led many in the Trump administration to argue that the government’s mismanagement, not U.S. sanctions, is to blame for the humanitarian crisis in Iran. Pompeo further said that by asking for relaxed sanctions, Iran’s politicians were “trying to avoid responsibility for their grossly incompetent and deadly governance.”

Ultimately, while continued U.S. sanctions on Iran have sparked backlash and calls for leniency both internationally and domestically, it seems unlikely that the Trump administration will back down, given its emphasis on a maximum-pressure campaign. For now, conditions continue to deteriorate in Iran and in the Middle East as a whole, leaving U.S. foreign policy under question.