There is a growing push for relief from sanctions on Iran. While some policymakers have been pushing for a return to conciliation ever since President Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, their voices have become much more prominent since the coronavirus pandemic reached Iran and started claiming lives on a grand scale.
But the advocates for sanctions relief are as misguided now as they were when the Iranian regime was facing a different set of crises. Their position depends on the mistaken assumption that money sent to Iran would primarily end up benefiting the civilian population. In fact, anyone who is appropriately familiar with recent Iranian history should understand that the clerical regime has a long history of misappropriating public funds, including those that are offered to the government as part of a relief package.
There is no reason to believe that this pattern of behaviour would change in the midst of the ongoing crisis. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that Tehran has already indulged its most self-serving impulses in that context. In a report published on 6 March, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) reported that Iran had ample medical resources when the outbreak was just beginning yet diverted many of these away from hospitals.
While regime officials enjoyed marginally better protection from the virus at exclusive private hospitals, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps distributed masks and other essential equipment to its proxies in Iraq before selling much of the rest on the black market at extortionate prices. Meanwhile, the public was left twisting in the wind, their hardships not just ignored but actively magnified by regime authorities.
Dozens of Iranians have been arrested for “rumour mongering” about the coronavirus outbreak since the first cases were publicly acknowledged in mid-February. Of course, the information leading to those arrests has almost invariably proven more accurate than the highly questionable infection rates and death tolls released by the government. While Tehran maintains that the number of fatalities only recently to be around 4,000, the NCRI and other independent sources find that well over 20,000 people have already died.
The latter figure is much more consistent with leaks from Iranian medical professionals, some of whom report losing dozens of patients every single day while working in facilities that are crowded well beyond capacity. These disclosures shine a spotlight on the regime’s incompetence in dealing with this and other crises. And at the same time, the regime’s denials highlight the fact that it would be difficult to trace the impact of relief that is left in the authorities’ hands.
No reasonable person is advocating to cut Iran off from medical resources and other humanitarian aid while leaving the population to suffer under the thumb of a negligent and repressive government. But it is important to note that the existing US sanctions never did that in the first place. As the White House has noted each time Tehran has accused it of making the coronavirus outbreak worse, the sanctions already have built-in exceptions for humanitarian needs.
Iran is free to invoke these exceptions, but instead the regime has worked tirelessly to exploit the coronavirus pandemic as a means of increasing pressure on the US to lift all sanctions. This would effectively give away resources to the theocratic dictatorship without any plan for monitoring spending or making sure that goods actually reach the public.
As Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi underscored, human rights groups and the United Nations should take a leading role in any coronavirus relief efforts. Crucially, this would involve a level of international access that would put those same groups in a position to address other problems that cannot be solved by throwing money at a fundamentally untrustworthy regime. And this includes longstanding problems that have been made worse by Tehran’s awful response to the pandemic.
As just one example, a UN-led relief effort would open the door to much-needed investigations into the conditions of Iranian prisons and the numerous inmates who have been detained on the basis of their disclosures about coronavirus infection rates and deaths. These people, together with participants in a November mass uprising and various other political prisoners, have been left especially vulnerable to COVID-19 at a time when outbreaks have been active for weeks in at least a dozen Iranian prisons.
In a bid to show a gesture of international good will, the regime recently announced it planned to release 85,000 prisoners in recognition of concerns over coronavirus. But this claim is as questionable as the official infection and mortality rates, especially given that reports continue to emerge of political prisoners staging hunger strikes, writing open letters, and even initiating riots in protest over cramped, unsanitary conditions and a complete lack of medical care.
These complaints have haunted international policies toward Iran for many years. Amidst the coronavirus outbreak, it has become more imperative than ever for Western powers and human rights advocates to address them. Yet, far too many policymakers have responded to a worsening crisis by demanding even less of the Iranian regime than they already were.
This is no way to save the Iranian people from the devastation of coronavirus. It is certainly no way of alleviating the suffering they have experienced at the hands of their own government. Those who are concerned for these people should not offer Tehran money or condemn the American strategy of “maximum pressure.” Rather, they should remind Tehran that it can already access goods that will benefit the public, and that if the regime is unable to use such resources effectively, the international community is ready to step in.
- Tahar Boumedra is a human rights activist and a former senior UN official. He was Chief of the Human Rights Office of United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) from 2009 until 2012. He was the Regional Director of Penal Reform International (PRI) for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), based in Amman, Jordan.
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