Coronavirus Catastrophe of Iran: The US Must Take Humanitarian View?

Iranian firefighters disinfect streets in Tehran in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus on March 13.
Iranian firefighters disinfect streets in Tehran in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus on March 13. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

by Bawa Singh 26 March 2020

Nowadays, one can find hardly any country without the death-like impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, pandemics highlighted the globalized world that has been caught medically ill-prepared to deal with such situations. Till date, the global counts of the infected case by coronavirus has been reached to the number of 4,45,853; 19,786 death and 1,12,037 recovered cases. In the prevailing scenario, Iran has been stood in the list of highest impacted countries on 4th place having deaths 2077 and infected cases of 27,017. In the backdrop of imposed economic sanctions over Iran, health issues likely to become more critical.

Economic sanctions as a strategy has remained a very important part and parcel of the US foreign policy since its independence. Scholars like Haufbauer, Schott, and Elliot who claimed that the US has been used economic sanctions more than 100 times over 30 countries including Iran during the history of the last 100 years. However, the instrument of economic sanctions in the US foreign policy got significant place during the Cold War, particularly controlling and regulating the geopolitical and geostrategic behaviour of the former-USSR in terms of doing illegal expropriations, destabilizing the unfriendly governments and expanding the communistic influences and using the military force beyond its borders. The US has been using economic sanctions to control the expansion of nuclear proliferation; chemical and biological weapons; missile proliferation etc pursued by the countries except for the permanent members of the UNSC. 

 In the background of history of hostile relations, the current US-Iran relations have remained off the keel. Moreover, the nuclear programme of Iran has become one of the most critical bilateral irritants between the US and Iran. The nuclear programme has invited the ire of the US since November 1979. The first time sanctions have been imposed by the US in 1979 when the group of Iranian students had seized the embassy of the former in Tehran making the people hostage. The first leg of sanctions was imposed under Executive Order 12170 by freezing the Iranian assets of about $12 billion and imposing the trade embargo. These sanctions were continued till 1981 and lifted under the Algiers Accords. The second turn of the sanctions took place given Iran’s actions against the US vessels in the Persian Gulf in 1987 under the regime of President Ronald Reagan. This turn was followed by the third sanctions (December 2006) under the according to UNSC Resolution 1737, targeting the foreign investments in oil, gas, and petrochemicals. 

 As per the views of Roe (2007), the nuclear programme of Iran has been launched in the 1950s with the assistance of the US, as part of the “Atom for Peace” programme. This programme was continued until 1979. However, following of Iranian Revolution (1979), this collaboration was discontinued. In the post -1979, Iran had continued its nuclear programme and remained obsessed with the acquisition of nuclear technology given the regional leadership and geopolitical and geostrategic dynamics. It had developed extensive sophisticated enrichment capabilities. This factor became an irritant and subject matter of international negotiations and sanctions. Limiting the nuclear programme of Iran, negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 have taken place, resulting in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) (July 2015).  

 Under the JCPOA, Iran had accepted to control its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium along with limiting the stockpile of the low-enriched uranium by 98%. The gas centrifuges would be reduced by two-thirds number in the next 13 years. It was an important part of the agreement that Iran would enrich uranium only up to 3.67%; and agreed not to build any new heavy-water facilities in the next 15 years. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would monitor all the Iranian nuclear facilities. Given the verifiability commitments on part of Iran, all countries of the 5+1 would lift the nuclear-related economic sanctions. In this backdrop, all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran have been lifted on 16 January 2016 in anticipation that Iran would go by the provisions of the nuclear deal. Again, with the changing geopolitical and geostrategic dynamics in the Middle East and heightening tension between the US and Iran, President Donald Trump had declared that the US would unilaterally cease implementing the JCPOA in 2018, and intended to re-impose the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, Iran has rolled back its compliance with the JCPOA and economic sanction has been imposed and continued till date.   

Corona Pandemic in Iran

 The first case of Coronavirus in Iran was reported in Qom on 19 February 2020. About 27,017 infected cases, about 2077 deaths given the outbreak of Coronavirus 19 have taken place until 25 March 2020. It has been reported that Iran is holding the fourth-highest number of COVID-19 deaths followed by China, Italy, and Spain. Also, Iran has been holding the highest place in Western Asia and the sixth-highest number of SARS-CoV-2 cases in the world. The fatality of the pandemics can be understood by a Tweet of the Iranian Health Ministry on 19 March, which reads as, “Iranian Health Ministry spokesman said that every 10 minutes, one Iranian is killed by the coronavirus. Every hour, at least 50 Iranian are infected.” 

For the critical situation, the first allegation goes against the Iranian government as some reports indicated that despite knowing about the outbreak of the pandemics in and out of the country, the government has not taken timely corrective measures. Even the public has not been updated about the outbreak. The combination of cynicism and religious ideology further made governmental judgment ineffective in this direction. The Iranian Government did not suspend the bilateral movements between Iran and China, despite the decision in this respect has taken by the government on January 31 as pointed by a member parliament (Bahram Parsaei) in an interview on February 4. Some of the Iranian airlines have not only keep on the business as usual as February 23, rather helped in transferring China-bound travelers passengers to the other countries, exposing the local people to the vulnerabilities of the pandemic. 

Why the US Should Take Humanitarian View?  

 The fatality of the pandemic can be understood by taking into account of its expansion. Infecting about one lac people, COVID-19 took about 67 days. Reaching to 2 lac infected cases, a period of 67 days reduced to 11 days and covering 3 lac, only four days were sufficient. This pattern of the expansion of the outbreak shows, if the corrective measure have not been taken by one and all countries, and for sure, the situation would go beyond the control. Then what would happen to a country like Iran, which has been facing economic sanctions whereby restricting its resources to deal with the situation. The Iranian scholars (Bajoghli and Rouhi: March 24, 2020) have argued that the Iran-Iraq War had killed more than one million people in the 1980s may be compared to lesser evil than the current situation. These researchers predicted that the pandemic which has already killed more than 2077 people and infected more than twenty thousand likely to turn into 3.5 million deaths. The people have been entrapped between the government’s callous attitude, mismanagement and financial strangulation by the American economic sanctions. 

With the imposition of economic sanctions, a wide array of restrictions have been seriously impacting the Iranian economic sectors such as trade, commodities, banking, insurance, ports, shipping, and energy transactions given the breakup of economic ties with external countries. The health sector may emerge one of the worst affected area in the backdrop of the outbreak of COVID-19. These harsh sanctions have been affecting vulnerable patients due to the lack of medicines and raw materials for Iranian pharmaceutical companies and medical equipment for hospitals. Gorji (2014: 381-2) has argued that, although, it is being claimed that medicine has not been made part of the sanction list, but it very difficult for acquiring the license for exports of medicine including the shipment in an anticipation of the possible U.S. sanction by the pharmaceutical companies and international banks. Mohammadi (2013:279) has analyzed that these sanctions led to the lack of drugs and medical facilities in Iran. Abruptly fifty percent rise in the price of medicines is another factor for the health crisis during the sanctions. The implications out of this non-availability/lack/expensive medicines felt by more than six million Iranian patients who have been suffering by hemophilia, multiple sclerosis, thalassemia, epilepsy, and various immunological disorders including the cancer patients. 

           In January 2020, the US once again slapped new sanctions over Iran, when the latter fired missiles at the US targets in Iraq in the reciprocations of an American airstrike in Baghdad, in which latter’s top military general (Qasem Soleimani) was killed. In the new sanctions, “The United States is targeting senior Iranian officials for their involvement and complicity in Tuesday’s ballistic missile strikes. Treasury also designated 17 Iranian metals producers and mining companies, along with entities based in China and Seychelles, for other penalties.” On the other hand, Iran has been failed to reciprocate positively to the pandemics and now the same has taken a monstrous form in the country. As the pandemics is being spread day by day, the government has been inviting the ire of the local people. Additionally, the weakening of the Iranian economy due to the falling oil prices and economic sanctions would become another stimulus for the pandemic, as the government would not be in a position to impose complete lockdown and quarantine given the poor economy of the country. 

In this situation, how Iran could be in a position to provide food, medicine and direct cash transfer to the lockdown and quarantined people? Moreover, Pirouz Hanachi (Mayor of Tehran) said that lockdown and quarantine except for elite was not possible for common people in Iran due to the government’s inability to manage financial support to people who are/would be unable to work. In 2019, the Iranian Parliament’s Research Center had published a report in which it has predicted that in the next one year, about 57 million below would be live in the poverty line. The same report has also indicated that between range 23 to 40 %, people come under the absolute poverty line. In this situation, Iranian people have been facing a lot of difficulties managing the necessities and square meal for the day and the exponential increasing unemployment has been making things worse.  

At last, one can say that the Iranian economy is in stagnation in general given the American economic sanctions in particular.  Bajoghli and Rouhi (March 24, 2020) have argued that in the present scenario, Iran has been facing a woeful shortage of medicine and medical equipment testing kits and general respiratory equipmentto combat the pandemics. If given these hitches, the corrective medical measures have not been taken, then in the coming time, the outbreak likely to inflict a terrible toll not just on Iranians, but for the entire world as well. 

The good part of US foreign policy is the advocacy of human rights. But if is a selective approach, it would be called a paradox of the same. Now the situation of pandemics would take a heavy toll on the common people due to manmade woeful shortage of medical infrastructures and facilities due to the economic sanctions. It becomes a case of human rights violations of the common people, particularly during the pandemics. In this background, the Trump regime taking into account of its commitment of  the protection of human rights, suspend the economic sanctions to manage the medical facilities in the time of crisis.  

If this opportunity is not seized by the US in the time of crisis, it would create more geopolitical space for the Chinese leadership. China has already taken some steps in this direction by sending a medical team including medical equipment like test kits and ventilators. Thus, it is suggested that President Trump taking into account the vulnerabilities of the common Iranian people, take humanitarian steps and needs to suspend the economic sanctions, so that Iran could manage the  medical facilities for the common people and protect the humanity!!!