Pompeo Calls Iran ‘An Accomplice’ to the Pandemic
(March 17, 2020) — Last week, Iranian officials emphasized that US sanctions are making their reaction to the coronavirus outbreak much more difficult, leading to both Iran and China to urge the US to put those sanctions on hold for humanitarian reason.
Not going after Iran for humanitarian reasons, needless to say, isn’t a policy that the administration considers, and the US announced more sanctions against Iran on Tuesday, saying they are part of the ongoing ‘maximum pressure campaign.’
But it wouldn’t be the Trump Administration if they didn’t rub it in. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed this up by declaring “The Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice,” arguing that Iran is being incompetent in reacting to the pandemic.
Iran isn’t being successful in controlling the outbreak, of course, but US sanctions are preventing them from buying a lot of medicine or equipment to treat the sick. The US military had some officials openly presenting this as part of the US strategy, believing that sick and dying Iranians would slow their ability to make decisions that threaten the US.
Throttled By US Sanctions, Iran Struggles With The Coronavirus
(March 17, 2020) — For an American, a certain amount of humility is required when criticizing the response of other countries to the coronavirus pandemic. In the case of Iran, however, the government has done so poorly that even Donald Trump’s performance looks less dreadful.
Cases of the virus began showing up in Iran before the February 21 parliamentary elections, including two that were fatal. The contagion apparently came to theological center of Qom via Chinese workers building a solar power plant there. Yet the Iranian government did not postpone the elections and waited weeks to close down Shi’ite pilgrimage sites in Qom and Mashhad, allowing the disease to spread throughout the country.
Iran also did not initially stop flights to China, which has become the Islamic Republic’s economic lifeline because of American sanctions and Europe’s apparent inability to circumvent them. As of March 16, it had not imposed any quarantines, although officials did urge Iranians to stay at home.
The Iranian government has been publishing daily statistics — more than 14,000 cases and more than 700 deaths so far — but few in Iran believe the numbers. As in the US, a paucity of tests means that the true extent of the crisis is not known. In Qom, authorities have excavated a massive new gravesite so large it can be easily seen from outer space, suggesting that the worst is yet to come.
Iran entered this dire situation at a time when the government was already extremely unpopular, with an economy crippled by sanctions and minuscule trust in most institutions and political leaders.
Iranians are still furious over the regime’s failure to come clean quickly about the accidental shoot-down on January 8 of a Ukrainian airliner, which a panicked Revolutionary Guardsman mistook for incoming American fire during a serious escalation of US-Iran tensions.
The government’s lies led to a spate of protests, though not on the scale of the massive demonstrations last year that followed an abrupt decision to raise gasoline prices. Those protests were brutally suppressed, with the death toll estimated between several hundred and more than a thousandlives.
Amid the current situation, the usual suspects in Washington have resumed their predictions of imminent regime change. How can such an unpopular government endure, they ask.
Clearly, the challenge is serious. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has taken to tweeting a video of a sermon he gave in 1985, during the Iran-Iraq war, when he continued speaking at Friday prayers in Tehran despite a bomb explosion. In the sermon, he blames the explosion on the “hypocrites” — a reference to the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a militant Iranian group that supported the 1979 revolution and then sided with Saddam Hussein after losing out in a power struggle. The crowd responds with the usual chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”
Iranian animosity toward the US is understandable, given the Trump administration’s decision to quit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal despite Tehran being in compliance with it and to impose crushing sanctions. But Iran, which is also seeking emergency relief from the International Monetary Fund, also needs the US to not block a requested $5 billion dollar loan.
Now would be a great time for some COVID-19 related diplomacy.
Signs of cracks in the regime’s rejection of Israel have emerged. An influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, 93, told an Iranian newspaper on March 11 that it was permissible to obtain a vaccine for COVID-19 from the Jewish state if Israeli scientists devised one first.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has pleaded for medical supplies and a suspension of American sanctions to allow Iran to more effectively combat the virus. So far, however, support for Iran has come mainly from the country that was the source of the pandemic — China.
It would be a true silver lining if COVID-19 were to trigger an outbreak of global diplomacy, including between the US and Iran. One possibility might be progress on freeing Americans jailed in Iran and Iranians detained in America (as well as political prisoners in Iran from other countries).
Unfortunately, tensions have only risen following a new spate of tit-for-tat attacks between Iran-backed militias and US forces in Iraq. And while the Treasury Department has taken several steps to ease financial transactions for the supply of medicine and medical devices to Iran, there have been no indications that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy is being reconsidered, despite its failure to moderate Iran’s regional and nuclear posture.
It appears that the crisis will only push Iran deeper into the arms of China and Russia and strengthen those in the regime who reject reconciliation with the West. The Revolutionary Guards, who are handling much of the response to the virus and building emergency medical facilities, will grow even more powerful as Iran comes to look less and less like a theocracy with a thin republican veneer and more like a military dictatorship.
The likelihood of massive protests also seems slim given government directives to stay home and rational fears that mass gatherings will only spread the virus.
Iranians, as always, are coping the best they can, using fatalism and humor to endure. There have been a spate of videos posted on social media showing doctors and nurses — in full hazmat suits — dancing to Persian music to keep up their spirits and those of their anxious compatriots. Iranian pop stars have posted videos in advance of the Persian New Year, March 21. That will mark the end of one of the country’s most difficult periods and the beginning of an uncertain new one.
Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council and tweets @BarbaraSlavin1. Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
Iran Warns Coronavirus Could Kill Millions as US Adds to Sanctions
Pompeo: New sanctions target those trading in petrochemicals
(March 17, 2020) — Iran’s state media issued a new grim assessment of the nation’s coronavirus epidemic. One of the nations most heavy effected by the global pandemic so far, officials are now warning that when all is said and done millions of Iranians could die.
Iran is trying most of the same quarantine policies as everyone else, but their attempts to medically treat the infected are greatly hindered by US sanctions, which have long limited their ability to import medicine and other humanitarian goods from abroad.
Iran asked last week for the US and international community to put the sanctions on hold for the duration of the crisis. Not only did the US not do this, but the Trump Administration announced a new round of sanctions against Iran on Tuesday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the sanctions targeted people involved in trading petrochemicals, and that the US wants Iran to unconditionally release American prisoners. Pompeo claimed Iran is considering doing so, though Iran has not confirmed this.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.