- - Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The people of Iran are facing a deadly catastrophe. It is not COVID-19, although that is ravaging their society, but rather the ineptitude and mendacity of their regime. Iran’s leaders are treating the pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate power and weaken their enemies, not to care for their people. 

Now, Iran seeks a loan from the International Monetary Fund and sanctions relief from the United States. Nothing, however, will change the fundamental fact that the Iranian regime is letting its citizens die. To truly help Iran, the United States should keep pressure on the regime while offering aid directly to the people.

The outbreak, and wildfire-like spread, of the virus through Iran is a direct result of the regime’s willful negligence and disregard for anything other than its own interests. The virus first emerged in Qom, a holy city and wellspring of the regime’s revolutionary Islamist ideology, on Feb. 19. But Iran’s leaders merely cast the disease as a foreign ploy to disrupt upcoming parliamentary elections that would put even more hardliners in power. Instead, both pilgrimages to Qom and direct flights to China, including Wuhan, continued.

While the coronavirus tore through Iran, including its elderly, and therefore particularly vulnerable, leadership, the regime focused on burying the truth. While leaders told people there was nothing to worry about, refusing to shut down public space, police were posted at hospitals to keep medical staff from disclosing the true extent of the pandemic, and the Iranian health system’s inability to cope. The result is that the official number of confirmed infections is likely highly inaccurate. Some estimates suggest it is several orders of magnitude greater than regime claims, perhaps as high as 2 million.

This deception proves to the Iranian people something they already learned: Their regime lies. It lied about killing protesters, shooting down a Ukrainian commercial airliner, and now it is lying about coronavirus. 



The untrustworthiness of the Iranian regime doubly victimized its citizens. First, it deprived Iranians of critical information to protect themselves. Then, it made them susceptible to often deadly misinformation. Today, Iranians are dying not just from COVID-19 but from attempting to protect themselves using many so-called cures — including drinking methanol and licking shrines — peddled by misinformed, if not malicious, clerics. Public service announcements to combat this misinformation are not only too little, too late, but also likely to be disregarded by a desperate and skeptical populace.

Amid its domestic troubles, Iran’s leaders have found time to launch propaganda and missile attacks against the United States. Iran’s proxies have thrice attacked U.S. bases in Iraq, killing two Americans and a Brit. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, meanwhile, used his national address marking the Persian new year to acknowledge the suffering caused by the pandemic, blame the United States and refuse any international medical assistance.

It is this regime that the Trump administration is now being urged to aid by lifting sanctions. Doing so, however, would be neither logical nor productive.

First, humanitarian and medical supplies are already exempted from sanctions. Iran can use revenue in foreign escrow accounts to import humanitarian goods. It can also utilize corrupt funds controlled by its leaders. Besides, since Iran claims to be so well-equipped that it has been sending medical aid to China, its leaders are unlikely to admit their deception by accepting outside assistance — and have outright rejected American help. 

This dynamic makes clear the second problem with the case for lifting sanctions: It assumes any new assistance to would be used to help Iran’s people, not its regime. But the regime has only extended Iranians’ suffering by devoting precious resources to proxy wars and developing nuclear weapons. Nothing in its response to this pandemic suggests Iran’s leaders would behave any differently if they received financial relief. 

Rather than relieving their suffering, lifting sanctions would likely prolong Iranians’ misery by extending the regime’s longevity.

If the United States truly wants to help the Iranian people, it cannot strengthen the Iranian regime. If anything it should help delegitimize it, while demonstrating its friendship toward the Iranian people. 

American officials can work around, not through, the regime. The United States can coordinate with its European partners on a humanitarian relief and medical assistance package, conditioned on Iran allowing international organizations and aid groups — like the World Health Organization, Red Crescent and Doctors Without Borders — to deliver and administer the aid directly. This would circumvent the corruption and incompetence of the Iranian regime and ensure that the Iranian people receive the help they need, and that they know who is providing it. Presented with such an offer, Iran’s regime will have to choose between opening its borders or publicly refusing to save its people.

Iran’s most dangerous contagion is its regime. Lifting sanctions is not the cure.

• Mark Wallace, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for U.N. Management and Reform, is CEO of United Against a Nuclear Iran. Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).

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