Coronavirus is a crisis. In Iran, it’s a massacre – because of US President Donald Trump’s sanctions. Even before COVID-19, these sanctions were recognized by Human Rights Watch as undermining access to healthcare.
The virus has taken lives globally but in Iran it has been particularly shocking, with hospital beds in parking lots and mass graves visible from space. Hundreds of lives have been lost because of the sanctions Trump calls the “highest sanctions ever,” sanctions that not only mean it is often impossible to get basic medicines but that a Coronavirus app, launched by the Iranian government to assist vulnerable citizens, was recently pulled by Google from its app store.
As the world turns its back on Iran during its time of need, this indifference will define how a generation of Iranians views the West.
But this isn’t about politics. Even hawkish George W. Bush eased sanctions on Iran at times of humanitarian crisis. This crisis is truly borderless; Turkey is only one country between Iran and the European Union. But the WHO’s message to “adhere to basic morality” has fallen on deaf ears in Washington, D.C.
The country’s authorities have even struggled to import coronavirus testing kits – something that harms not only Iran, but the global population.
The Trump administration claims that “humanitarian and medical needs” are exempt from sanctions. This may be true in theory but in practice, few companies dare trade with Iran, and those who do find that transactions take triple the normal time. And time is a luxury we do not have when fighting a pandemic.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently wrote to world leaders exhorting them to ignore US sanctions, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did the same to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres describing the sanctions as "a campaign of economic terrorism." Increasingly, the US and UK political figures have started to see sense and echo their Iranian counterparts. US congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, as well as Ali Milani (the Labour candidate who stood against Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his Uxbridge and Ruislip constituency) have supported the calls to put humanitarianism before posturing. The pandemic has had a high personal cost for Milani, whose father has died after contracting the virus in Iran.
After China and Italy, Iran has seen the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19, making it the disease epicenter of the Middle East. And it is not just a shortage of medication that the country is battling because of sanctions. Even basic equipment like face masks and protective suits are in short supply, leading to doctors becoming infected and being relieved of duty – exactly the opposite of what needs to happen if we are to get this pandemic under control.
It should not be difficult for Washington to adjust its position, particularly since the logic of the sanctions is at best spurious and at worst nonexistent. The measures were reintroduced after the US unilaterally withdrew from the international nuclear treaty with Iran, despite all the other signatories – including the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – urging the US to continue to honor its commitments.
Unsurprisingly, international pressure is building on Trump. UN Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures, Idris Jazairy, has called the sanctions “illegitimate, disproportionate and indiscriminate.” He added: "The current system creates doubt and ambiguity which makes it all but impossible for Iran to import these urgently needed humanitarian goods. This ambiguity causes a ‘chilling effect’ which is likely to lead to silent deaths in hospitals as medicines run out, while the international media fail to notice."
In a bid to deflect international criticism, the US last week announced an easing of sanctions through an arrangement with Switzerland, by which the European country would facilitate payment for exports of goods permitted under the sanctions. Critics, however, immediately dismissed the move as a PR stunt, since it was incapable of channeling the large money flows needed to bring enough essential items into the country.
Shadowy lobbying groups continue to influence Trump to force all pharmaceutical companies to end their business with Iran, even that which is carried out under the special license humanitarian exemptions allowed by the US sanctions regime. One of those, United Against Nuclear Iran, is continuing to seek to impose reputational damage on companies dealing with Iran in pursuit of its aim of pressuring Tehran to withdraw from its regional superpower status.
None of this is wise at the best of times, but certainly not during a global pandemic. Any failure to contain the virus inside Iran will adversely impact the global effort against the COVID-19. To continue with the current policy is to conduct a premeditated massacre – a massacre that will affect all of us around the world.
Iranian pharmacology professor, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj recently stated that, "Just as a virus will attack the most vulnerable members of any given population, the coronavirus is now attacking the global health system at its most vulnerable points – before spreading everywhere else."
Our system may not be as vulnerable as Iran’s, but we are part of the same global organism. And COVID-19 is continuing to spread through it.
* Masoud Shadjareh is the chair of the London-based NGO Islamic Human Rights Commission. This article was first published on euronews.com.