Sanctions in a time of Pandemic
The Islamic Republic of Iran is fighting the Wuhan virus with its usual obfuscation, lies, denials, and accusations. Calling the virus a concerted effort by the U.S. and Israel to infect Iran, the government has demanded an end to Western sanctions – and money, lots of money -- because, it says, American sanctions are preventing medical supplies from entering the country.
The first claim is nonsense and the second claim is nonsense.
Sanctions are aimed at reducing the amount of money Iranian government officials and entities have to engage in nuclear weapons development and the sponsorship of terrorism. With limited resources, they are supposed to weigh malign behavior on the one hand, and the needs of the Iranian people on the other. Thus far, the Iranian government has chosen the first hand. Because sanctions are not aimed at the general Iranian public, there is, and has always been, a medical exemption -- an existing EU importation mechanism was augmented in February with a Swiss channel.
The website Iran International was reported to have seen documents indicating that in mid-January, “Fardavar Azma (an) Iranian company, which is the exclusive representative of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, announced its readiness to import coronavirus test kits.” In early February, agents representing South Korean companies said they were prepared to “import test kits from South Korea.”
In addition, the U.S. has offered Iran supplies. Brian Hook, the U.S. Special Representative for Iranian Affairs, told reporters, “U.S. sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran,” adding that the U.S. had sent a diplomatic note to Tehran offering help “and it was quickly rejected.”
Supreme Leader Khamenei agrees. “Several times Americans have offered to help us to fight the pandemic. That is strange because you face shortages in America. Also, you are accused of creating this virus. I do not know whether it is true… You could be giving medicines to Iran that spread the virus or cause it to remain permanently… Our number one enemy is America. It is the most wicked, sinister enemy of Iran... its leaders are terrorists... Liars and charlatans.”
Iran does not want our medical supplies because they can only be used as medical supplies.
Iran wants cash money -- one thing the mullahs and their IRCG and Basiji minions don’t lack. In 2013, Reuters estimated Khamenei’s wealth in the neighborhood of $95 billion. An updated assessment done with Daily Sabah in 2019 indicated upwards of $200 billion. Iran’s IRGC is estimated to control 20 percent of the Iranian economy (admittedly a declining asset).
Outside money would allow Iran to keep doing what it is doing and keep its tools operating. One of those tools is Mahan Air. Sanctioned since 2011 by the Treasury Department, it was flying to and from China as late as February and wasn’t grounded until this month. (Mahan planes were also flying into Italy until November of last year.) According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “In February, Iran’s chief terror airline, Mahan Air, continued to fly at least 55 times between Tehran and China, spreading the #WuhanVirus. At least five countries’ first cases of #COVID19 were a direct result of the Iranian regime’s disregard for everyone’s health. The Iranian regime ignored repeated warnings from its own health officials, and denied its first death from the #WuhanVirus for at least nine days.”
So, if it has become clear that a) the Iranian government is at least in large measure responsible for the importation and spread of the virus, which it now is having great difficulty controlling, and b) that the United States is correct (and generous) to offer only non-fungible aid, is there a path forward for Iran?
Yes. Ending the sanctions entirely when Iran meets the conditions outlined by Secretary Pompeo nearly two years ago. In short form:
- Meet the requirements of the UN and IAEA for nuclear accountability and inspections, including ending enrichment and closing the heavy water reactor; and end ballistic missile development and production as required by the UN.
- Release all U.S. citizens, as well as citizens of our partners and allies.
- End support to Middle East terrorist groups, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; and for the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Houthi militias in Yemen; and for Shiite militias in Iraq.
- Withdraw all forces under Iranian command from Syria.
- End threatening behavior against its neighbors (including) -- threats to destroy Israel, and its firing of missiles into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (and) threats to international shipping... and cyber-attacks.
Far from a high bar, this is more along the lines of what my grandmother would have called being an international “mensch.” And surely, in the context of a pandemic, it would be a decent atonement and a decent price for the Iranian government to pay for the rescue of its people.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly