The coronavirus outbreak in Iran has turned into a national crisis. Officials have confirmed 10,000 cases of infection and 429 deaths by Covid-19, although health experts and hospital sources say the government has not been fully transparent about data and real numbers are much higher. And despite having one of the region’s best health systems, the country’s resources are exhausted and the crisis seems to be beyond their capacity.
But in addition to the government’s domestic shortcomings, the political fight between Tehran and Washington has had a strong impact on this outbreak. Iran’s unusually close ties with China, as a lifeline to circumvent US sanctions, led to the initial spread of the virus in the country. Harsh economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have contributed to a shortage of test kits and medical supplies in Iran, and US sanctions even resulted in Google removing Iran’s coronavirus diagnosis app from its online store.
Dr Minoo Mohraz, a prominent specialist in infectious diseases in Iran, has said Iran was initially behind on detecting coronavirus cases due to a lack of diagnosis test kits. She said European companies would not sell the kits to Iran in fear of US sanctions — eventually, the World Health Organization stepped in and sent test kits directly. The WHO has warned that there is a shortage of resources and supplies in Iran, and the country needs more help in fighting the pandemic.
A young father living in Tehran, whose cousin died at a local hospital at the beginning of the outbreak, told me he had all the signs and symptoms of coronavirus and his death report even cited “suspected coronavirus” as the cause of death — but he was not tested for the virus as there is a shortage and test kits are saved for those patients who are still alive.
Amid the crisis, one of the problems for international aid going to Iran has been to clarify the legal issues related to sanctions to ensure that medical supplies and medicines can be brought into the country. And this slowed down the health response in the first weeks of the outbreak, said Olivier Vandecasteele, Iran Country Director for Relief International, one of the few international NGOs that has been taking medical protective supplies, diagnostic test kits, and medication into Iran.
Sanctions have also impacted Iran’s digital battle against the deadly virus. As aforementioned, the Iranian government released an interactive Android app to help people self-diagnose the coronavirus and avoid rushing to hospitals with every mild symptom. But Google removed the application from its app store, saying: “Developer accounts from Iran are not allowed on Google Play.”
Dina Esfandiary, a Fellow at the Century Foundation, says the over-implementation of these sanctions by big international firms such as Google is now hampering Iran's ability to ensure that the pandemic doesn't worsen, and will inevitably have a knock-on effect internationally as the virus continues to spread.
While external factors have contributed to the spread of the virus, Iran’s internal management of the crisis has also been a disaster. Nader Hashemi, Director of the Middle East Studies Center at the University of Denver, told me: “Khamenei came close to admitting culpability when he linked the low voter turnout in the parliamentary elections to the virus outbreak. This clearly suggested that the focus of the regime was on shoring up its sagging legitimacy by encouraging a large voter turnout, not in taking precautions to prevent this pandemic. Rouhani was more explicit. He described the coronavirus as ‘one of the plots and conspiracies that our enemies are pursuing’.”
This is the third major self-generated crisis facing the Islamic Republic in recent months. First was last November when security forces brutally suppressed anti-government protests across the country, killing hundreds of protesters and arresting thousands. Second was during the retaliation attack for the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, when an IRGC missile shot down a Ukrainian airliner and killed 176 civilians on board — then tried to cover up the mistake for three days. Both events have contributed to a lack of trust in the government, which is what Iran needs to be able to fight this pandemic.
The Trump administration has eased some sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank to open a channel for humanitarian trade but that does not seem to be sufficient. Previous US administrations, Democratic and Republican, responded to humanitarian crises more rigorously. In 2004, when a devastating earthquake killed thousands of people in the city of Bam in Iran, then-President George Bush lifted sanctions for a limited period so that international aid could get into the country. A similar situation happened in 2012, when an earthquake hit northern Iran. At that time, President Obama suspended sanctions for a few months to allow aid to be sent in.
Donald Trump should follow his predecessors in this time of crisis and temporarily lift sanctions. Not only will doing so allow others to help Iran to contain this growing crisis, but it will prevent it from further spreading across the region and potentially around the world.
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