How Trump sanctions on Iran will worsen the pandemic

The New York Times | Narges Bajoghli and

The toll of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, which killed as many as one million people in the 1980s, is feared to pale in comparison to that of the coronavirus epidemic: Iranian researchers have estimated that the outbreak, which has already killed more than 1,500 people in the country, will peak around late May and could result in 3.5 million deaths.

Iranians are yet again caught between their government’s mismanagement and financial strangulation by American sanctions. Tehran failed to respond to the crisis quickly. As the virus spread, Iranians, already angry with the government for shooting down a passenger airliner in January and trying to cover it up, were incensed by the slow response and political games.

At the same time, the American sanctions and falling oil prices have severely weakened the Iranian economy. An impoverished Iran needs financial and medical resources — from food and medicine to cash transfers — to carry out an effective nationwide quarantine and other measures to curb the outbreak.

Iran can’t afford to halt its economy and enforce a complete lockdown. Tehran has sought to shore up the financial security of its poorest families through cash transfers over the past week but faces a huge budget deficit. Pirouz Hanachi, the mayor of Tehran, explained that a quarantine was nearly impossible to enforce because the government would be unable to financially support people unable to work.

Iranian elites can afford to stay home but a majority of the population would be devastated by a long period of not being able to earn a living. Compounding this is a shortage of medicine and medical equipment including ventilators, testing kits and general respiratory equipment to combat the contagion.

If Iran fails to contain the outbreak, it would inflict a terrible toll not just on Iranians, but also its neighbors and the world at large. Those neighbors — not all of them Iran’s friends — understand the gravity of the danger and have sent aid.

Britain, China and Russia, among others, have called on the United States to ease sanctions so that Iran can respond more effectively, but the Trump administration has displayed no signs of heeding such pleas. Instead, last week the United States announced a new round of sanctions.

The Trump administration claims that its sanctions do not hinder medicine and humanitarian trade. But since the sanctions prevent international financial transactions and shipping, any trade, including that of medicines and medical equipment, is almost impossible. Several companies that supply the medical equipment required to fight coronavirus have stopped shipping to Iran because their banks refuse to handle the transactions.

The Trump administration’s unwillingness to ease restrictions when Iran faces this debilitating crisis will severely hobble efforts at engagement for years to come and stain the reputation of the United States as a global leader.

Given that the lives of millions of Iranians are at stake, President Trump needs to suspend the sanctions, allowing other countries to offer humanitarian aid without fear of American repercussions.

Among the many horrors of the Iran-Iraq war was the use of chemical and nerve gas against Iran by Saddam Hussein, who at the time was supported by the United States and European countries. About 100,000 Iranian survivors of that chemical warfare live with chronic respiratory problems and often need inhalers and oxygen masks. They are considered at greater risk of being infected by coronavirus.

The isolation Iran experienced in the 1980s during its war with Iraq set it on a path to developing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and strengthen alliances with countries like Syria, which has worsened the animosity between Washington and Tehran.

Before the Iran-Iraq war, West Germany helped Iraq build facilities for chemical weapons in Falluja and Samarra. But during the war, West Germany, Austria and Spain opened their doors to Iranian survivors of chemical warfare. Some of those medical exchanges continue, and they have helped repair relations between Iran and these European nations.

After the coronavirus outbreak, in striking contrast with the United States, China sent a medical team to Iran, followed that with shipments of test kits and ventilators and has publicly requested that the United States to remove sanctions. Iran is more likely to continue to turn toward China, shifting the balance of powers in the Middle East away from the West.

If the Trump administration continues to block international economic activity with Iran, a country of 80 million people will be abandoned — and the world could suffer the consequences of the unfettered spread of a deadly disease. Iranians will remember the choice the United States makes today.

Narges Bajoghli is an assistant professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of “Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic.” Mahsa Rouhi is a research fellow at the Nonproliferation and Nuclear Policy program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.