Middle East Eye:

By Shireen T. Hunter

Iran is among the countries worst hit by the coronavirus crisis, with more than 32,000 cases and 2,300 deaths, and no indication that the rate of infection will fall anytime soon.

A number of factors have contributed to the virulence of Covid-19’s spread in Iran, including the delayed reaction of Iranian authorities; political considerations vis-a-vis Beijing, with flights by Mahan Air to China continuing after the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan; and the initial reluctance of some religious leaders to shut down the holy cities of Mashhad and Qom. Only after infection numbers rose did some prominent clerics encourage people to stay away.

Sanctions fallout

Meanwhile, members of the public have been reluctant to drastically curtail their movements. There has also been dissent within and outside the government, with some political factions using the crisis to undermine the Rouhani government. These factors, alongside the general lack of proper management, have complicated dealing with the crisis.

Recently, the government has ramped up its reaction, imposing more severe restrictions on travel within and between cities. But US sanctions have severely limited Iran’s ability to acquire the necessary medical equipment, including testing kits, masks, disinfectants, and other gear needed to prevent the further spread of Covid-19.

US sanctions, which have severely weakened Iran’s economy and removed its access to the global banking system, have worsened the crisis.

To cope with the monetary shortfall, Iran recently requested $5bn from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - but without US acquiescence, this is unlikely to come through. Around the same time as the IMF request, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, one of its remaining foreign exchange earners.

In recent weeks, Iran has embarked on a diplomatic campaign to urge other countries to demand that the US lift its sanctions, or at least those aspects that most hinder access to essential medical supplies. President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have spoken to their counterparts, asking them to call on Washington to lift its sanctions.
Massive human costs

Some countries have responded positively. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has urged the US to lift the sanctions, as have Russia and China, although their request is unlikely to carry any weight in Washington. Behind the scenes, the UK has also reportedly been trying to convince the US to lift at least some sanctions on Iran. The United Nations, meanwhile, has called for the suspension of all sanctions imposed on all countries fighting Covid-19.

Thus far, however, there has been no sign that Washington is willing to ease sanctions on Tehran, despite their potentially horrendous human costs. While US President Donald Trump did say the US was willing to assist Iran if it requested help, the offer was not serious, and Iran rejected it.

Those who have argued in favour of easing sanctions on Iran have done so in moral and humanitarian terms, but such arguments are unlikely to influence the Iran hawks in the US. Yet, there are also solid, interest-based arguments for easing sanctions on Iran.

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