As coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads around the world, Iran is still one of the largest outbreaks of the deadly virus and its epicenter in the Middle East. The Iranian government has been non-transparent and slow in fighting the virus; the country’s health system and hospitals are overwhelmed; and health workers are dealing with a massive shortage of medical supplies needed to fight this pandemic. Economic sanctions imposed by the United States have also contributed to this shortage and hindered Iran’s fight against the virus.
By March 24, 2020, Iranian health officials have confirmed a total of 24,818 cases of infection and 1,934 deaths across the country. Tehran has been the hardest hit followed by Isfahan and the northern provinces of Gilan, Alborz, and Mazandaran. Iranian officials acknowledge that these numbers only indicate definite cases and there are many people who have contracted the virus with mild cases and have not been identified. Experts and hospital sources inside the country say the government has not been transparent about the statistics and that the real numbers are much higher than what has been announced.
The holy city of Qom, just a short distance from the capital Tehran, was where the virus first started. The government was slow to acknowledge the existence of the virus and to recognize the seriousness of the threat until it was too late, and a few initial cases have turned into an outbreak. New cases have been reported around the country and across its borders in neighboring countries.
US sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration after pulling out of the nuclear deal in 2017 have limited the country’s ability to procure and import foreign goods, including medicine and medical supplies. Although medicine and certain medical devices (not all) are exempted from U.S. sanctions, financial sanctions make it difficult for banks and companies to do any business and trade with Iran, including the procurement of humanitarian goods.
This difficulty has become especially evident in the face of this pandemic as the country’s medical resources are quickly being drained and there is an immense need for new supplies every day. Doctors and nurses report shortages of basic essentials such as gloves and masks as well as more advanced equipment like ventilators. Despite the exemption that exists on paper, human rights organizations and legal experts have repeatedly warned that, in reality, U.S. sanctions continue to limit Iran’s ability to import certain medicine and medical devices.
Sina Azodi, a researcher in international relations at the University of South Florida who has conducted research on the impact of U.S. sanctions in Iran, relayed that “food and medicine are not sanctioned; however, it is difficult for Iran to pay for that medicine because banks are extremely worried about the possibility of hefty U.S. fines – so they basically forgo doing any business with Iran.” He added, “those who claim that sanctions have no impact on the import of medicine must answer a basic question: why would Iran need a humanitarian channel if sanctions have no impact? Because it can’t be both ways.” Mr Azodi is referring to the Swiss channel that was recently set up with help from the United States to facilitate the importation of medicine into Iran. That new channel, however, has not been sufficient for facing a pandemic. European countries such as the United Kingdom have urged the United States to ease sanctions on Iran in this critical time so the country can fight the deadly virus.
Easing sanctions on Iran at times of crisis is not a new concept. It happened in 2003 under then-President George W. Bush when a devastating earthquake hit the city of Bam in Iran and killed thousands of its residents. The Bush administration lifted sanctions temporarily so that aid could be delivered to Iran. It also happened during the Obama presidency in 2012 when an earthquake hit northern Iran and the U.S. government temporarily lifted sanctions to allow humanitarian aid to enter Iran.
Prominent Democrats Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswomen Ilhan Omar have called for U.S. sanctions to be lifted so that Iran can fight the pandemic. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Barbara Lee have also questioned the administration on whether current exemptions on medicine are adequate for Iran to be able to import the necessary supplies. Two dozen American organizations have also asked the Trump administration to lift sanctions temporarily in this time of crisis.
Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian-American Council, explained they urged the treasury to suspend the terrorism designation for the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), which they did, but to also suspend other measures, to issue a general license for sending money and other relief, and to issue guidance on what is permissible. However, this should all be done at a minimum — all the sanctions punishing Iran’s economy beyond humanitarian relief should be considered for suspension if we are serious about combating coronavirus in Iran. He added, “as Iranian Americans watching the devastation from afar, we don’t just feel helpless, we feel complicit that our own government is needlessly adding to Iranians’ suffering. I have family members that were fighting coronavirus on the frontlines in Iran as healthcare providers who have died of the virus and I am incensed that my own elected government had a role to play.”
Researchers at Sharif University of Technology have simulated three different scenarios for the outbreak in Iran. In the best case scenario, if the government takes strict measures and the public follows them thoroughly, the death toll will be around 12,000 before the peak of the pandemic passes. But in the worst case scenario, if the government does not take strict quarantine measures and the public does not follow guidelines, the peak of the pandemic will be in late May and as many as 3.5 million Iranians could die of the disease. This is a catastrophe in the making and is in the national interest of every country in the region to help Iran contain this outbreak before it gets completely out of hand.
In the face of pressure to ease sanctions on Iran, the Trump administration has demanded that Iran release American citizens and residents who are imprisoned in Iran. The Iranian judiciary has just released American citizen Michael White on furlough. But a few other Americans still remain in prison in Iran, including Simak Namazi and his father Bagher Namazi.
While the world is coming together to fight this pandemic, the crisis also provides an opportunity for diplomacy between Tehran and Washington. And both sides can do so as a humanitarian gesture. The Trump administration should ease sanctions on Iran to make sure the country can obtain the necessary medical supplies it needs to fight the virus. And the Islamic Republic should release all American prisoners, not only as a political move, but also due to health concerns that the virus could quickly spread inside prison. This deadly disease is taking lives by the hour and no government should be complicit in helping the spread of this virus in any way. Iran and the United States should act soon, before it becomes too late.
Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian-American bilingual journalist and media analyst based in Washington. She has been covering Iran and the region for over a decade and is a frequent guest commentator at US and international outlets including NPR, MSNBC, BBC, Aljazeera, CGTN and i24News.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum