Posted inOxford News

Heightened U.S. sanctions on Iran threaten lives and complicate containment efforts

Yasaman Hakami, an undergraduate sociology major studying law & society at UC Davis, exposes the humanitarian implications of sanctions during the COVID-19 pandemic

As of 11 March, more than 118,000 people have been infected globally, almost 4,300 people have died and at least 114 countries/territories and areas have been affected. If Iran is not able to stem the crisis, the virus will continue to spread throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Iran has been inundated with economic sanctions following the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Nuclear Deal. The dire economic situation created by the United States disarmed Iran from implementing any meaningful measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

By the time the coronavirus hit Iran on February 19, the country’s economy, including its healthcare system, had already been devastated by U.S. sanctions. Nearly three dozen Iranian government officials and members of parliament were infected and a senior adviser to the supreme leader had died. Iran is one of the most impacted countries with 1,200 deaths.

The Iranian currency, the Rial, lost 80 percent of its value. Food prices doubled, rents soared, and so did unemployment. The decimation of Iran’s economy has left the government with scant resources to cover the enormous costs of direct medical treatment for patients suffering from the coronavirus, as well as support for workers who are losing their jobs and helping businesses going bankrupt.

Humanitarian aid—food and medicine—was supposed to be exempt from sanctions. But that hasn’t been the case. Shipping and insurance companies have been unwilling to risk doing business with Iran and banks have not been able or willing to process payments.

This is especially true after September 20 when the Trump administration sanctioned Iran’s Central Bank, severely restricting the last remaining Iranian financial institution that could engage in foreign exchange transactions involving humanitarian imports.

Members of the U.S. Congress are speaking out against the heightened sanctions. Representative Ilhan Omar calls for lifting of sanctions on Iran amid an outbreak. Omar tweeted in response to the Trump Administration’s decision to intensify sanctions: “This makes no sense. Sanctions are economic warfare…They have already caused medical shortages and countless deaths in Iran…You cannot claim to want deescalation and then announce new sanctions with no clear goal. This is not a measured response!” The British government has also reportedly advised the U.S. to reconsider sanctions in this time of crisis.

The sanctions have been decried as medical terrorism as the virus wages its own war within Iran and around the world. The outbreak has prompted extreme measures from authorities, such as the temporary release of about 70,000 prisoners to contain the spread of the illness, which has now reached all of Iran’s cities. The sanctions continue to be a “crime against humanity,” as noted by political researcher Sina Toossi of the National Iranian American Council. 

Later on Friday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced that he had sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, asking the international community to “disregard inhuman US sanctions.” “As the #COVID19 ravages Iran, we should recognize that viruses don’t discriminate. To fight them, neither should humans,” Zarif said, sharing the letter on Twitter.

New satellite photos show the coronavirus crisis in Iran is likely much worse than its government is letting on — or, at least, that the country’s leaders are preparing for the worst.

Maxar Technologies, a private space tech company, showed two large burial trenches being dug at a cemetery outside of Qom, Iran’s religious capital. These graves are the size of football stadiums and were visible from satellite images.

Iran has taken some important measures, including closing down certain public spaces, to curb the disease’s spread. But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also seems to be blaming others for his government’s faults, saying, “It is one of the enemy’s plots to spread fear in our country and close down the country.”

Among those in Iran who have been unable to get critical medications have been patients with leukemia, epilepsy, and chronic eye injuries from exposure to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war. Now coronavirus is added to that list.

The Iranian government is not without blame. It grossly mishandled the beginning of the outbreak, downplaying the danger, putting out false information, and even arresting individuals who raised alarms. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from the first proof of how intertwined we are as a global community, and how dependent we are on each other for the humanitarian support, empathy, and compassion needed during such critical and troubling times.