Iran has been hit uniquely hard by the pandemic — almost 60,000 cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported there, of which more than 3,000 have resulted in death. But it is also unique among affected countries in having to respond to COVID-19 with one hand tied behind its back by crippling economic sanctions.
More than anything else, the pandemic has made us realize how our health and safety are dependent on one another, epitomizing the importance of international cooperation. Despite this, the United States insists on not only maintaining but also intensifying its unilateral, illegal, and deadly sanctions regime against Iran.
According to one study, the conditions imposed by these sanctions could result in the deaths of 3.5 million Iranians. These conditions also undermine the global fight against the pandemic, thereby threatening the health and safety of all people of the world. It is not only a moral obligation for Canada to stand against this grave injustice and call for an immediate severance of this policy, but also in our vital national interest to do so. Thus far, however, Canada has fallen far behind other countries in taking a stance against the sanctions and a humanitarian position that fulfills its international role as a moral actor.
The Iranian economy was already devastated by sanctions before COVID-19 , and their negative impact on the health of ordinary Iranians has been known and documented by NGOs, academics, and even the United Nations. The pandemic simply sheds light on the long-standing inhumanity of these sanctions. The Iranian healthcare system’s resources to respond to the crisis are exhausted.
The sanctions have contributed to shortages of medical supplies and equipment, including COVID-19 test kits, according to doctors inside Iran. Foreign companies refuse to engage in trade with Iran due to a fear of U.S. punishment. The sanctions also make the financial transactions required for medical trade virtually impossible. Even Relief International and other humanitarian aid organizations that have obtained clearance from the U.S. Treasury Department have reported encountering difficulties and delays. Beyond this, by strangling the Iranian economy, the sanctions make it more difficult for the government to fund its fight against the pandemic. This, in concert with the shortage of essential goods needed during a time of crisis and reduced purchasing power, has made life exceptionally miserable for ordinary Iranians.
Since the outbreak reached Iran, civil society, American lawmakers and the international community have been mounting pressure on the U.S. government to suspend sanctions. The Guardian has reported that the United Kingdom is quietly pushing the Trump administration to relax sanctions. China, Russia, Pakistan and the European Union have urged the U.S. to do the same. The UN Secretary-General and High Commissioner for Human Rights have both called for easing sanctions on countries affected by the pandemic. Dozens of academics and NGO leaders have signed on to an open letter drafted by a Canadian think tank calling for an end to sanctions.
The Trump administration responded by aggravating the situation further with more sanctions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirmed that despite calls for international assistance, the administration will continue to “further Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation.” He even tried to push for a military strike against Iran taking advantage of the country’s weak position amid the COVID-19 crisis, according to the New York Times.
If there was ever any doubt about the anti-humanitarian nature of the sanctions on Iran, the Trump administration’s cruel refusal to lift them while the country is ravaged by a pandemic has cleared it up. The intent of these sanctions has always been the collective punishment of the Iranian people, and proponents of the maximum pressure policy see the deadly pandemic as an opportunity to advance their political goals.
As a state that holds human rights to be among its core values, Canada cannot stay silent in the face of this injustice. The Trudeau government’s record on Iran has not been impressive and demonstrates consistent compliance with U.S. policy, rather than reflecting our global reputation as a conscientious international actor. Even now, Canada has yet to follow our allies and the international community in calling on the U.S. to abandon its inhumane policy towards Iran.
Given we have one of the world’s best healthcare systems and the capacity to respond to the pandemic, the ethical thing for us to do would be to help other countries in protecting the health of their people, not being complicit in limiting their ability to do so. It is long overdue for Ottawa to take a position of conscience and call for sanctions relief. Canada’s position should be one based on human compassion, respect for human rights and, most importantly, a willingness to work as part of a united world to combat our common enemy: the virus.
The rampant spread of COVID-19 is not only an Iranian issue but a global one in which Canada has an immediate stake. The Iranian diaspora is significant, and Canada has one of the largest, most influential diaspora communities globally, with an estimated 300,000 Iranian Canadians living in provinces all across the country. With such a large community with close ties to Iran, it is no surprise that the impact of any major crisis in Iran will be felt by Canadians, as was the case with the tragedy of the downed Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752.
As journalist Negar Mortazavi told Global News, if Iran doesn’t have the resources needed to address COVID-19, infections will continue to spread beyond its borders, especially given the large Iranian diaspora around the world.
The Canadian government is already jeopardizing the safety of hundreds of Canadians stranded in disease-struck Iran with no way back home. To further ignore the implications of the dire situation in Iran — including the lethal role of sanctions — for Canadians would put our health and safety in danger. It is, therefore, in the vital interest of Canadians to work with the world to combat the coronavirus pandemic, and this includes assisting Iran as it is crushed between a national health crisis and an inhumane policy of maximum pressure.
It goes without saying that, as a first step, Canada does not even need to go out of its way to spend resources to aid Iran. The best way to assist Iran’s fight against the pandemic is to simply end our complicity with the sanctions regime and pressure the U.S. to observe international law and refrain from violating Iranians’ right to health by lifting the sanctions immediately. We should also do our own part to uphold international law by defying these unjust sanctions.
This is by no means a bold demand but a necessary act of conscience and international leadership that our allies are already exercising and that Canadians expect from their government. Canada needs to realize what our southern neighbour fails to: that our health is dependent on the health of others around the world. We either sail together or we sink together.
Parsa Albeheshti is a high school student and youth activist based in Toronto. He is the chair of the Youth Committee of the Iranian Canadian Congress, a non-profit organization dedicated to safeguarding the interests of Iranian Canadians. He is a regular contributor to community news outlets such as the Iranian Canadian Journal and the Willowdale Advocate. He organized a local chapter of the global strike for climate action in September 2019. He has also been active in organizing several campaigns from anti-war and environmental actions to electoral campaigns at all levels of government.