The spread of COVID-19 has caused governments worldwide to mobilise in the face of this emergency. Countries have implemented emergency measures to protect their citizens and shown solidarity by providing supplies where appropriate. One nation, however, is an obvious outlier to this sentiment - Iran. Through systematic mismanagement and blatant disregard for the safety of its people, the regime has caused untold misery to its people.
While many Iranians languish under a mismanaged and floundering economy, and suffer under an insufficient health system, the regime continues to shift the blame for its own citizens’ distress to the sanctions implemented by the US. The reality, of course, is that the Iranian economy has long been plagued by the regime’s endemic corruption, economic mismanagement and reckless foreign policy.
Yet, even in the midst of a chaotic pandemic, the regime’s leadership prioritises its revolutionary ideology over its own people’s well-being, by continuing to refuse US offers of assistance and unfounded, absurd claims the virus is US-manufactured "bioweapon."
The truth is far from this Bond villain-esque plot, and much closer to home. Iran’s regime has a long history of corruption and mismanagement. Just last summer, the chief of staff to Iran’s president disclosed that $1.12 billion (€1 billion) in hard currency that was allocated to import essential goods and medicine had “disappeared.” This is the second time funds earmarked for medicine and medical supplies have been “misplaced or diverted” away from the healthcare system.
The situation deteriorated drastically under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By 2012, the Transparency International ranking placed Iran as one of the most corrupt countries worldwide, with a ranking of 133 among 176 nations. Ahmadinejad’s loose monetary policy, subsidy cuts and populist cash-handouts helped precipitate the ongoing currency crisis and inflationary spiral.
The Iranian regime and its state media apparatus continue to fabricate stories blaming the sanctions for civilian deaths.
Where medical shortages did exist, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps exacerbated the problem and profited from it. Instead of properly applying the government-subsidised exchange rate to imports of food and medicine, the IRGC exploited it to purchase luxury goods.
It’s within this context that the virus befell the country - a country plagued by opacity, unaccountability, and corruption and mismanagement scandals across successive presidential administrations and branches of government.
Even notwithstanding the blatant corruption rife in the Iranian government, the regime’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak has put tens of thousands of citizens' lives at risk. When the virus first emerged, officials once again hid the truth from citizens to ensure turnout for their parliamentary election on 21 February. Clearly desperately unwell, the deputy health minister denied any coverup on 24 February, only to test positive himself a day later.
Rather than shutting down Qom, the city of origin for the virus, representatives of the Supreme Leader campaigned for pilgrims to keep on visiting. Thousands of pilgrims continued to amass in the city, paying respects by kissing and touching numerous shrines and landmarks, and then disseminating across the nation.
The regime has the ability to seek help - if it wants it. Any country seeking to assist the Iranian people amid this pandemic should use the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement or the existing humanitarian trade exemptions under US law. Furthermore, Iranian companies account for about 70% of the country’s pharmaceutical needs, with the remainder — either finished medicines or inputs — are imported.
The United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign does not stop the flow of humanitarian goods, food or medicine. In fact, maximum pressure can only be successful if it allows for the delivery of goods, supplies and services that meet the important humanitarian needs of the Iranian people. It is the Iranian people that suffer through this cruel regime, and the Iranian people these sanctions ultimately wish to save.
The Iranian government had the power to curtail the virus, but instead they ignored the situation, lied to their people and exacerbated the situation to weaken the resolve of the international community to robustly implement sanctions. Sanctions are not the villain in this regretful story. That title firmly lies with the incompetent, corrupt and callous Iranian regime.
- David Ibsen is the President of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a civil society group based in New York that advocates against the Iranian regime.
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