Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Iran Sanctions and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Don’t be fooled by false claims about the U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
March 30, 2020
The Iran Sanctions and the COVID-19 Pandemic
TOPSHOT - Iranian Firefighters disinfect streets in the capital Tehran in a bid to halt the wild spread of coronavirus on March 13 2020. - Iranian forces will clear the streets nationwide within 24 hours and all citizens will be checked for the new coronavirus in a bid to halt its spread, the military said. (Photo by - / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

Iran is one of the countries hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic—with over 38,300 reported infections as of this writing, and over 2,600 deaths (although satellite photos and reports of mass graves suggest that the numbers are significantly higher)—while also facing economic isolation because of U.S. sanctions. This combination of facts has prompted a campaign calling for the lifting of the sanctions.

Last week, a group of Democratic members of Congress—Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Ed Markey, and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Jared Huffman, Joaquin Castro, Ayanna Pressley, and Barbara Lee—signed a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin asking for an end to the sanctions. Activist Linda Sarsour used her social media platform to promote the campaign. They are joined by more than two dozen progressive organizations, ranging from the respectable (like the Truman Center) to CODEPINK. A second letter was organized by the National Iranian American Council, a lobbying organization with questionable links to the Islamic Republic regime.

In short, those who have always opposed sanctions on Iran still oppose sanctions on Iran but now are using the pandemic as an excuse.

Loosening the sanctions is a terrible idea. First of all, as I have written, the regime in Iran is overwhelmingly responsible for the crisis in the country. And the pandemic has nothing to do with U.S. sanctions: Medical goods are mostly exempted from U.S. sanctions (read section 828 here). As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on March 20, “the whole world should know that humanitarian assistance to Iran is wide open, it’s not sanctioned.” Finally, the United States has already offered aid to Iran, and Iran has rejected the offer.

To be sure, the economic downturn has contributed to the shortage of medical supplies in Iran. (Although the public-health crisis and economic downturn have not stopped Iran from enriching uranium and denying the U.N. nuclear proliferation watchdog access to its nuclear sites, in breach of the nuclear agreement Iran is still a party to.) But corruption is to blame, too: Regime cronies have created monopolies over medical goods to enrich themselves. The economic relief that Iran received after the nuclear agreement mostly went into military expenditures and support for the regime’s proxy militias.

Most importantly, however, the shortages are deliberate. Again, medical goods are exempted from sanctions. But taking a card out of Saddam Hussein’s playbook, the regime has created shortages to provoke domestic and international campaigns against the sanctions. So far, it has been successful on the latter side. Western media are filled with commentaries about how sanctions are preventing exports of medical supplies to Iran and hurting the healthcare industry there.

Domestically, however, there has been no success. Most Iranians are not fooled by the “sanctions are hurting us” mantra anymore—in 2015, after the nuclear agreement, sanctions were lifted, Iran received a quarter of its GDP in cash, and things got worse. The mass and violent protests that began in December 2017 happened before sanctions were re-imposed and before the United States departed the nuclear agreement. The protests of November 2019, the largest and most violent in Iran’s history, were not directed at the U.S. sanctions or the United States in general but at Iran’s own regime. Likewise, Iranians are blaming not the U.S.-imposed sanctions for the coronavirus crisis but their own government.

Yet the woke Western saviors of the Iranian people disagree with the Iranian people about the source of their collective misery. It is not your government at fault, they seem to be saying, it’s ours. If they really want to help Iranians, they can start by accepting the Iranian people’s wisdom. It’s the regime, stupid.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.