Tehran doesn’t have the resources to enforce quarantines and take other measures to contain the outbreak.
The toll of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, which killed as many as one million people in the 1980s, is feared to pale in comparison to that of the coronavirus epidemic: Iranian researchers have estimated that the outbreak, which has already killed more than 1,500 people in the country, will peak around late May and could result in 3.5 million deaths.
Iranians are yet again caught between their government’s mismanagement and financial strangulation by American sanctions. Tehran failed to respond to the crisis quickly. As the virus spread, Iranians, already angry with the government for shooting down a passenger airliner in January and trying to cover it up, were incensed by the slow response and political games.
At the same time, the American sanctions and falling oil prices have severely weakened the Iranian economy. An impoverished Iran needs financial and medical resources — from food and medicine to cash transfers — to carry out an effective nationwide quarantine and other measures to curb the outbreak.
Iran can’t afford to halt its economy and enforce a complete lockdown. Tehran has sought to shore up the financial security of its poorest families through cash transfers over the past week but faces a huge budget deficit. Pirouz Hanachi, the mayor of Tehran, explained that a quarantine was nearly impossible to enforce because the government would be unable to financially support people unable to work.
Iranian elites can afford to stay home but a majority of the population would be devastated by a long period of not being able to earn a living. Compounding this is a shortage of medicine and medical equipment including ventilators, testing kits and general respiratory equipment to combat the contagion.
If Iran fails to contain the outbreak, it would inflict a terrible toll not just on Iranians, but also its neighbors and the world at large. Those neighbors — not all of them Iran’s friends — understand the gravity of the danger and have sent aid.
Britain, China and Russia, among others, have called on the United States to ease sanctions so that Iran can respond more effectively, but the Trump administration has displayed no signs of heedingsuch pleas. Instead, last week the United States announced a new round of sanctions.
The Trump administration claims that its sanctions do not hinder medicine and humanitarian trade. But since the sanctions prevent international financial transactions and shipping, any trade, including that of medicines and medical equipment, is almost impossible. Several companies that supply the medical equipment required to fight coronavirus have stopped shipping to Iran because their banks refuse to handle the transactions.
The Trump administration’s unwillingness to ease restrictions when Iran faces this debilitating crisis will severely hobble efforts at engagement for years to come and stain the reputation of the United States as a global leader.
Given that the lives of millions of Iranians are at stake, President Trump needs to suspend the sanctions, allowing other countries to offer humanitarian aid without fear of American repercussions.
Among the many horrors of the Iran-Iraq war was the use of chemical and nerve gas against Iran by Saddam Hussein, who at the time was supported by the United States and European countries. About 100,000 Iranian survivors of that chemical warfare live with chronic respiratory problems and often need inhalers and oxygen masks. They are considered at greater risk of being infected by coronavirus.
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