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On realism: The US, Iran and COVID-19

Image: Mohammad Ali Marizad

Last week, Defence Connect published an article on realism and the coronavirus pandemic. That article touched on the role realism plays in the US and Iranian responses, while this article will be taking a deeper dive into the subject as Trump and his leadership come under pressure to ease sanctions on Iran despite rising tensions coming to a head this year.

Last week, Defence Connect published an article on realism and the coronavirus pandemic. That article touched on the role realism plays in the US and Iranian responses, while this article will be taking a deeper dive into the subject as Trump and his leadership come under pressure to ease sanctions on Iran despite rising tensions coming to a head this year.

Iran was one of the first countries outside of China to feel the brunt of the spread of COVID-19. At the time of writing, figures through John Hopkins University are showing 60,500 coronavirus cases in Iran since the outbreak and 3,739 deaths, however, the real number is likely higher due to inaccurate recording or underestimates of the extent of the spread within Iran.


On 19 March, the spokesperson for Iran’s Health Ministry tweeted that every hour almost 50 people contract the virus and every 10 minutes one person dies because of COVID-19 across the country. As the burden on the country’s debilitated health care system has dramatically increased, the broad US economic sanctions resulting in severe international banking restrictions have drastically constrained the ability of the country to finance humanitarian imports, including medicines and medical equipment. 

Humanitarian needs

Tehran and Washington have both been criticised for their response to the growing crisis in Iran. 

“It’s bad enough that Iranians are saddled with a brutal, self-serving government that refuses to even release wrongfully detained people in crowded prisons despite the risk of coronavirus,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “But it is wrong and callous for the Trump administration to compound Iranians’ misery by depriving them of access to the critical medical resources they urgently need.”

A doctor with close knowledge of the government’s response to the outbreak told Human Rights Watch that obtaining necessary medical equipment has become more difficult under sanctions:


“The reality is that sanctions are exacerbating Iranian government’s crisis of incompetency. To manage a pandemic of this scale, a government needs the trust of people and health professionals as well as essential resources. The government has done a poor job of managing the public trust front, but sanctions have impacted their resources both in terms of available medical equipment for detection and treatment of the virus, as well as in terms of their capacity to support people’s needs during the crisis.”

While the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, Human Rights Watch research in October 2019 found that in practice, these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods.

The policy of maximum pressure, used by the US, aims to create an unprecedented economic crisis in Iran. This policy has then a direct impact on the Iranian health sector. As a result of the oil embargo, the government has lost at least 40 per cent of its budgetary revenue, with oil exports represent in Iran between 40 and 50 per cent of the state revenues. 

Iran and the US in brief

US and Iranian relations have been filled with tensions since the ousting of the US-supported Shah and the Islamic revolution. Events such as the US embassy hostage crisis cemented Iran as an enemy in the mind of the US public and this has not changed. 

The US supported Iraq during the devastating Iran-Iraq war despite also secretly supplying Iran through the Iran-Contra scandal and actively operated with other nations in the Middle East to act against Iranian nuclear capabilities through strikes against facilities.  

The Iranian leadership has done little to shake this enemy tag with continued anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric. Iran has also built a network of proxy forces, which it has used to strike Western targets around the Middle East, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon which has continued to use acts of terrorism against American and Western targets during conflicts which plagued Lebanon and beyond.

This continued support of designated terrorist organisations and its continued development of nuclear technologies, be they for domestic energy purposes or for nuclear weapon capability, has led to a heavy-handed approach from the international community through sanctions and other means led by the US and regional competitors in the Middle East, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

More recently, there have been some positive gains made in terms of co-operation or at least dialogue between Iran and the West through the now-defunct nuclear deal. Spurred on by a slightly more moderate government in Tehran and a slightly more carrot than stick approach by the international community, the nuclear deal was struck and this was ensuring regular inspections of nuclear facilities in Iran to ensure guidelines were being adhered to, which from most accounts Iran was sticking to. 

This all changed with the change of government in the US and the Trump presidency. President Trump ran on his ability to seek better deals on international agreements that he saw as lopsided, including notably the Iran nuclear deal. He quickly announced the US withdrawal from the deal and stepped up US sanctions on Iran heavily directed to its leadership and the Iranian revolutionary guard core, which the US has designated a terrorist organisation due to its actions throughout the Middle East supporting proxy forces such as Hezbollah.

Conflicting interests and COVID-19

The Trump government has returned to the heavy-handed stick approach in an attempt to get the Iranians back to the negotiating table, which has so far had the opposite effect. From Iran’s point of view, there is little use in negotiating with a country that is dogmatically inflexible. Under the Trump administration, the US has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, ratcheted up sanctions, and gone to the brink of hot conflict with the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. As a result, Iran has dug in on its nuclear development, foreign military adventurism, strikes on US and allied targets in Iraq, and domestic repression

The two countries have goals that do not have a middle ground. The US wishes to either force Iran back to the negotiating table for a deal that better benefits the US and scores a political victory for President Trump. Whereas Iran's goals in the region are focused on increasing its influence in the region, specifically Iraq, which includes forcing the US to withdraw further by creating discontent with American presence among mostly the Shia majority of Iraq.

This brings us to the US responses to the coronavirus struggle faced by Iran early in the crisis. The US came under fire with calls from many arguing for the lifting of sanctions to help nations at risk better cope with the crisis, this not only included Iran but also other states such as Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea and, to a lesser extent, Zimbabwe.

Some argue that it’s necessary to ease the sanctions if only temporarily, to better co-ordinate the global fight against the virus and to minimise economic hardship in these countries for basic humanitarian reasons. This is where idealist there would argue that in times of global threat co-operation is necessary for a global response. However, it appears realist argument has won out when it comes to the US sanctions.

Ian Dudgeon writes in an article for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute title The Strategist:

"While Iran wrestles with its response to the pandemic, there’s considerable concern among health professionals about some neighbouring countries that are highly vulnerable to infection and have a limited capability to prevent the virus’s rapid spread, especially among crowded refugee communities, and to treat those infected.  The economic and social impacts on their populations, and their viability as functioning states, could be devastating.

"Those who want sanctions against Iran and other countries eased to help combat the virus are committed to fighting it and providing humanitarian support to alleviate suffering from the economic consequences. They include UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, and the WHO.

"Unexpected support for the suspension of specific sanctions has also come from Democrat presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, and from more than 30 other Democrats in the Congress and the Senate. They say saving lives is the right thing to do, both morally and because of  broader US national security interests."

The US administration has argued that the sanctions do not apply to medical or humanitarian goods, however many international banks and companies have claimed intimidation and refused to become involved for fear of direct or indirect US reprisals.

Dudgeon further writes:

"Its [The US administration] principal concern is that the proposed humanitarian assistance would undermine President Donald Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign to facilitate regime change, especially in Iran, but also in Venezuela.

"Washington also believes that Iran would exploit humanitarian assistance to divert scarce resources to enable continued support to its ‘malign’ activities regionally. The US, therefore, isn’t expected to support Iran’s IMF bid for special economic assistance.

"Trump did make a tentative offer to help Iran last month, though it was rejected because Tehran regarded it as unacceptably conditional. A separate offer by Pompeo to help Venezuela effectively insisted that President Nicolas Maduro step down from office. It, too, was rejected."

The US administration appears committed to its regime of sanctions as it deems these the best way to ensure that its goals in the Middle East are better served. It sees competition between its allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Iran as key to its global interests and as such does not have particular interests in assisting Iran through the COVID-19 pandemic, arguably seeing it as another event that could destabilise the regime in Iran and create more pressure from the Iranian people for change that may benefit the US. Furthermore, the US has continued to blame Iran for its response and the spread of the virus through the Middle East and further. 

This may be a case of the US shooting itself in the foot as providing relief to Iran may indeed assist US interest by giving incentive to the Iranians to return to dialogue at the least.

For now, it seems that support from the World Health Organisation and China has slowed the spread of the virus in Iran and the virus is now devastating major cities in the US, despite the pain the US is now feeling its foreign policy in the Middle East and towards Iran remains a barrier to humanitarianism and assistance to states it deems as competing against its interests. 

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On realism: The US, Iran and COVID-19
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