COVID-19 has turned into a political weapon

The case for lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran is about rising above the geopolitical fray for the health of human beings and economies
Photo: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discusses sanctions against Iran at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, D.C., on November 5, 2018. Photo by U.S. Department of State.
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Political malice has taken on a whole new meaning under COVID-19.

How else could you characterize the actions of leaders who opt not only to not pause in hostilities with enemy populations but to leverage the pandemic for political points?

Take the emergency makeshift field clinic that a Palestinian community inside the West Bank was setting up. Officials from Israel’s Civil Administration took away poles and sheeting that were going to be used to construct eight tents, six of which were for the field clinic as well as emergency housing for people evacuated from their homes.

Iran is also not the only country low on medical supplies. Unlike other countries, however, Iran cannot scour the globe looking for masks and swabs.

The reason? Palestinians are not allowed to build new structures without permission from Israeli overlords. How does closing a community health initiative during the crisis not reinforce the charge that the Israeli government is responsible for institutionalized discrimination against Palestinians?

The U.S, meanwhile, continues to demonstrate staggering vindictiveness towards its foes in Tehran (which is not surprising, given the callousness U.S. President Donald Trump has displayed

towards his own citizens) through its refusal to repeal sanctions — even when they have prevented medical supplies from entering Iran. If anything, Washington has used the pandemic to squeeze the country even more: fresh sanctions were imposed in early March, when Iran was already in the midst of fighting the coronavirus. All of a sudden, COVID-19 has turned into a political weapon.

The U.S. government’s loyal cronies, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Masih Alinjad, an Iranian human rights activist who works at Voice of America Persian, have been doing their best to counter a growing campaign asking Washington to lift the sanctions to alleviate the coronavirus crisis in Iran. The movement has won support from nearly three dozen members of Congress, the United Nations secretary general, rights groups and academics and even the European Union, which last week completed their first transaction to send medical supplies under a complicated barter system set up to get around U.S. sanctions.

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“The leadership isn’t interested in medical help, but in breaking the sanctions,” Alinijad argued in an op-ed last week. “Remember, this is a leadership that has refused to shut down the religious shrines at Qom, the epicenter of the virus in Iran and has failed to quarantine major cities to slow down its spread.” There’s no doubt that Iranian officials’ belated, cruel and incompetent efforts at battling COVID-19 have played a huge factor in the spread of the virus. They’re not, however, the only government that has done this (as the U.S. itself has so clearly displayed). Iran is also not the only country low on medical supplies. Unlike other countries, however, Iran cannot scour the globe looking for masks and swabs.

The U.S sanctions mean it must “jump through hoops to purchase medicine or the raw materials to produce its own supplies,” notes Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.

For this reason, Pompeo’s recent statement that humanitarian assistance to Iran is “wide open” is deeply misleading. “Few countries are willing to sell even critically needed supplies to Iran for fear of violating U.S. banking sanctions,” Ghaemi says.

Sanctions actually crush voices of dissent inside Iran.

Moreover, sanctions do not work. Contrary to Washington’s assertions that they force leaders to comply, sanctions can (and have proven to in the case of Iran) produce the opposite effect, particularly since internal conflict is already at place.

“Imagine you’re the government of a sanctioned country and you know that the sanctioner is encouraging dissent and the subsequent turmoil to then change you,” says Nassim Noorozi, a visiting lecturer of philosophy at Concordia University. “You then take more pre-emptive large-scale violent measures to ensure any dissent gets crushed, so it never gets to any large-scale uprising.”

Hence, sanctions actually crush voices of dissent inside Iran and compel governments to act more roguishly.

“Sanctions punish the innocent and guilty together because of the collective nature of their operation, because they tend to hit people who have the least amount of power and are the economically vulnerable … who have very little or no influence on what the government does,” adds Noorozi. “They also deepen inequalities.… Limited resources mean more [government] corruption.”

The case for lifting sanctions on Iran is not about excusing state brutality. It’s about rising above the geopolitical fray and recognizing that now is not the time to score points. At a time when the world is battling a sweeping epidemic, is it possible for adversaries to put their self-interests aside — if only to protect the health of human beings and the health of economies?

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