US sanctions, Iran and coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
21-22 March 2020
As Morning Star readers know, the BBC largely reflects the interests and opinions of the British establishment. Nevertheless, occasionally discerning consumers can find important, critical information on one of the corporation’s many platforms.
For example, at the end of February BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme broadcast a brief interview about the UK’s response to coronavirus with Dr Bharat Pankhania, a Senior Clinical Lecturer at the College of Medicine and Health, University of Exeter.
Though he wasn’t asked about Iran, Pankhania, who has over 20 years’ experience working as a consultant in communicable diseases, snuck in an inconvenient truth: “What happens in other countries can come to bite us too”, he said. “I am very concerned about Iran and the health sanctions by America against Iran. Because when you have uncontrolled transmission of infection in Iran it will affect the Middle East and it will affect us too.”
As those following the outbreak will know, Iran has been hit particular hard by the virus. Before the Italian outbreak fully took hold, Iran had the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China. “Iran has the highest mortality rate in the world”, ITV News Correspondent John Irvine noted on 13 March. “On a daily basis it fluctuates between eight and eighteen per cent.” As of 19 March the statistics website Worldometer had recorded 18,407 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Iran, with 1,284 deaths.
So what is the connection between US sanctions and Iran’s response to coronavirus?
The US began sanctioning Iran in 1979, following the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran and the subsequent hostage crisis. More recently, President Obama – along with the European Union – implemented a tough sanctions regime from 2012 to 2015, which was largely suspended when the US and Iran agreed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Obama Administration’s sanctions caused mass suffering for ordinary Iranians. “Among those bearing the brunt of the crisis are patients and hospitals reliant on currency for imported medicines and foreign-based services”, the Guardian noted in October 2012. “Iran’s Haemophilia Society, for example, has blamed the sanctions for risking thousands of children’s lives due to a lack of proper drugs.”
Following the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018, the US implemented an even harsher set of sanctions on Iran.
“The sanctions we have imposed are the toughest ever… the Iranian economy this year could contract by as much as 14 percent”, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook stated in January.
“More than 700 individuals, entities, aircraft and vessels” including 50 Iranian banks and their foreign subsidiaries are sanctioned, according to a July 2019 report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman. “The sanctions have hit oil sales, imposed wide ranging restrictions on traders and businesses and significantly contributed to a devaluation of the currency and inflation.” Importantly, the US sanctions regime effectively applies to nations and organisations without any ties to the US doing business with Iran. The effect of these “secondary sanctions” has been “to deter international banks, pharmaceutical companies, NGOs and charities from facilitating the flow of goods and services and money to Iran”, Salil Patel, a junior doctor at Imperial College, explained in the Independent in January.
In his report, the UN Special Rapporteur said he was concerned that the sanctions “will unduly affect food security and the availability and distribution of medicines, pharmaceutical equipment and supplies.”
Similarly, Human Rights Watch raised the alarm in an October 2019 report: “The consequences of redoubled US sanctions, whether intentional or not, pose a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health and access to essential medicines – and has almost certainly contributed to documented shortages – ranging from a lack of critical drugs for epilepsy patients to limited chemotherapy medications for Iranians with cancer.”
In an attempt to understand the link between US sanctions and coronavirus in Iran I spoke to Dr Pankhania. “When you have a completely super-stretched and almost bare-boned healthcare system as a result of sanctions you do not have any reserves for dealing with a surge in the number of patients”, he told me. “Furthermore, you wouldn’t have extensive laboratory facilities”, which are essential in the early stages of an outbreak to “recognise that you had the presence of the coronavirus in your midst – because you only know if you look for it.”
Indeed, earlier his month the BBC reported Ramin Fallah, a board member of Iran’s Association of Medical Equipment, saying he is unable to purchase testing kits for coronavirus due to US-imposed sanctions.
The sanctions have had a broader influence on the Iranian government’s response to the virus, according to Amir Afkhami, an Associate Professor of psychiatry, global health and history at George Washington University, writing for Politico earlier this month: they “have made matters worse by making the Iranian regime more skittish about taking any public health measures – such as reducing contacts with its main trading partners or declaring a public health emergency – that could further damage its already ailing economy.”
The evidence, then, strongly suggests that the US’s barbaric, isolating sanctions regime has caused widespread pain and misery in Iran – and endangered the rest of the world. Many of the first cases of coronavirus registered in other locations, including Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar, New Zealand and New York, have been attributed to individuals who travelled from Iran, a recent Foreign Policy article explained.
As Open Democracy editor Adam Ramsay recently tweeted: “The coronavirus is an important reminder that health isn’t private. As a species we live in herds. Everyone’s health relies to some extent on everyone else’s.”
In addition, to helping to trigger an economic crisis and having deleterious impacts on the Iranian health system during this health emergency, the US sanctions have had a number of other specific impacts on Iran.
First, air safety: “There have been scores of plane crashes in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, mainly because western sanctions for decades limited its ability to purchase spare parts or buy new planes”, the Guardian reported in February 2018. This was a welcome acknowledgement in the mainstream press of the West’s culpability for hundreds of needless deaths, though, to be clear, this information appeared in paragraph 19 of 21 of the article, so will likely have been missed by many readers.
Second, US sanctions have likely strengthened the hand of hardliners in Iran. In 2013 several hundred Iranian political and human rights activists, academics, and students wrote an open letter to President Obama warning of exactly this. Referring to the deadly US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, they noted “We are deeply concerned about the recurrence of the Iraqi experience for Iran, which would eliminate the only opportunity for peaceful and democratic change in our country. We are certain that economic sanctions will continue to weaken Iran’s civil society and strengthen the hands of extremists.”
Incredibly, on 17 March Reuters reported the US had imposed fresh sanctions on Iran, targetting a number of entities and individuals, “keeping up its economic pressure campaign even as it offered to help Tehran cope with the coronavirus pandemic”.
“The US government is run by sociopaths”, was journalist Mehdi Hasan’s response to the US doubling down on its crippling sanctions regime.
Close observers of Western-Iran relations will be aware historical facts that undermine the official Western narrative, such as the 1953 US-UK led coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, are, conveniently, rarely mentioned in the Western mainstream media (though they are not forgotten in Iran, of course).
With this in mind, it is essential we do not let the key role of US sanctions in the ongoing coronavirus crisis in Iran to be pushed down the memory hole too.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.