Iran Review | Yasmine Taeb and Sina Toossi: As Democrats coalesce around presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, they should seek to secure US interests abroad in a way that better bolsters human rights and minimizes the risk of war.
The case of Iran today is emblematic of a misguided policy that harms both the Iranian people and US interests. The coronavirus crisis has made clear the cruelty of the Trump administration’s approach to Iran. This was highlighted in a recent letter by Iranian pro-democracy activists, who called on President Trump to lift draconian US sanctions on Iran amid the outbreak.
The signatories of the letter, which included former political prisoners and women’s rights advocates, proclaimed: “It is abundantly clear that the siege and economic sanctions on Iran have affected the healthcare and basic daily needs of the people” and that this “is inhibiting the country’s ability to respond to the current pandemic and is doubling the suffering of our people.”
However, the Trump administration has refused to ease sanctions. Secretary of State Pompeo claims the administration wants “good things for the Iranian people” but that the coronavirus crisis “is no reason to try and infuse cash to the Iranian regime.”
This narrative has been opposed by traditional US allies like the UK, as well as the UN and senior former US officials. What is needed now is economic reprieve that eases the suffering of the Iranian people and creates a path to vitally needed diplomacy.
Democrats for their part have largely united in calling on the Trump administration to take concrete steps to permit aid to reach Iran, which US sanctions obstruct despite exemptions for humanitarian trade existing on paper.
However, while some progressive and moderate Democrats have signed a letter calling for broad relief during the pandemic, other more hawkish congressmen such as Sens. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) have adopted a narrower approach and echo some of the administration’s talking points on Iran.
Ensuring humanitarian aid gets to Iran is a no-brainer and should be the bare minimum ask of all Democrats. However, the coronavirus outbreak underscores the need not just to help innocent Iranians against the virus, but to rethink current US policy toward Iran and other countries bearing the brunt of US pressure.
Vice President Biden and his team played a leading role in negotiating the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. Trump reneged on the accord in May 2018 in favor of a so-called maximum pressure policy that has only produced setbacks for US and humanitarian interests.
Since the administration abrogated the multilateral nuclear accord in May 2018, US-Iran tensions have skyrocketed as oil tankers have attacked in the Persian Gulf, missiles have been launched at bases hosting US troops, and the US has edged closer to large-scale military action in Iraq. Humanitarian relief at this juncture could offer Trump an opportunity to extricate the US from the simmering crisis with Iran.
Democrats must not play into Trump’s jingoism on Iran. Statements such as the one from Menendez serve to validate more than rebuke the administration’s warmongering policies. Democrats must be outspoken in supporting peace, diplomacy, and human rights with respect to Iran and beyond.
Sanctions relief in the service of advancing diplomacy is essential to supporting human rights. The coronavirus crisis makes this clearer than ever. If a country like Iran does not have the resources to adequately confront the disease, the pandemic will continue to take lives and spread to local US allies and potentially US military personnel in the region.
Moreover, to paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, is peace too not a matter of human rights? A US policy that is starting a war simply does not empower the Iranian people. The academic literature also makes clear that sanctions wither away the potential for peaceful democratic change.
As far as US policy toward Iran is concerned, increasing room for political dissent and civil society in the country should start with removing barriers to improving the standard of living of the Iranian people.
In their letter calling for a respite from US sanctions, the Iranian pro-democracy activists stated: “Without a doubt, during this very difficult situation, the U.S. can put itself alongside the Iranian people, who are the real friends of the American people.”
Indeed, many Iranians have long yearned for a better relationship with the United States. The US should not let them down.