Iran’s theocratic rulers have gone far beyond simply mismanaging their coronavirus outbreak. They are now actively undermining foreign efforts to alleviate the crisis. This week, the Health Ministry rebuffed an offer of assistance by Doctors Without Borders, which would have led to the construction of a field hospital staffed by nine medical experts. That decision was made soon after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rejected aid from the United States while peddling bizarre conspiracy theories about the growing pandemic.
As shocking as these developments are, even more shocking is that they haven’t stopped certain Western policymakers and NGOs from advocating for the removal of US sanctions as a means of diminishing the outbreak’s impact on the Iranian people. If Tehran is unwilling to utilize resources that have already been made available for that purpose, there is simply no reason to conclude that unfrozen assets and newly de-sanctioned foreign commerce would improve outcomes for any of Iran’s 80 million citizens.
Indeed, the likely outcome of lifting sanctions would be an increase in the Iranian regime’s expenditures on projects that are unrelated to public health and largely harmful to global stability. This has always been the effect of sanctions relief and unmonitored aid for Iran in the past. And although the coronavirus pandemic represents a unique set of circumstances, it would be foolish to assume that Tehran will change it behavior in response.
The Trump administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure” is based on strength being the only language the Iranian regime understands. That premise is well-founded, and it is the reason pro-democratic voices among the Iranian people and the Iranian expatriate community have long advocated for maintaining economic pressure and diplomatic isolation, even to the point at which Iran’s clerical dictatorship collapses.
Iran has been drawing steadily closer to that outcome, with two nationwide uprisings in the past two years. And Iranian officials are now recognizably worried about the prospect for the coronavirus outbreak to prompt even more widespread and impassioned opposition to the regime over the long term. As a result, Tehran’s response to the crisis has been overwhelmingly focused on maintaining control over public discourse and the flow of information. Public health has been, at best, a secondary consideration.
The official infection rates and death toll in Iran reflect these misplaced priorities. Even so, they dramatically under-represent the actual impact of the outbreak. Whereas Tehran recently announced that the number of fatalities from Covid-19 had surpassed 3,000, independent sources indicate that the real figure is at least 15,500. And in an international video-conference hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in mid-March, one Iranian expatriate doctor estimated that the total number of cases had already exceeded one million.
This figure was later corroborated by other medical professionals working inside Iran, who risked arrest and up to three years in prison by speaking to foreign media outlets about the severity of the crisis. Some of these have also noted that somewhere between 20 and 30 patients are dying each day in just one hospital.
Take Coronavirus Response Out Of Regime’s Hands
The NCRI has been closely tracking COVID-19’s impact and the regime’s response to it, drawing upon the intelligence resources of Iran’s leading domestic opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). In detailed reports, the Resistance has made a convincing case for taking the coronavirus response out of the hands of regime officials and giving that responsibility to international organizations, as well as the Iranian people themselves.
These entities might have been able to bring the outbreak under control at an early date, using medical resources already available in Iran, had they also been armed with reliable information. But the mullahs made every effort to suppress that information from the very beginning.
While evidence points to the regime being aware of COVID-19 patients in Iran no later than the last week of January, authorities sat on that information for three weeks in order to encourage participation in national elections and a celebration of the Iranian Revolution. In so doing, they helped to facilitate the rapid spread of the virus, causing the epidemic to spiral out of control very rapidly. At the same time, entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps reportedly hoarded personal protective equipment and medical resources for themselves, leaving public hospitals woefully under-prepared to handle the inevitable surge in admissions.
Recent reports emphasize that the IRGC sold masks at gloves for massive profits while the outbreak was raging, and that Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, simply gave away 50,000 masks to Iran-backed militias during a trip to Iraq. And on March 23, a US State Department fact sheet put these actions in context with a long history of misappropriation. It noted that in July 2019 alone, $1 billion in medical aid disappeared from the Islamic Republic, and was likely used in part to finance regional terrorist activities.
This is exactly what the international community should expect to happen to any money or vital resources that are given to the clerical regime, even during the coronavirus pandemic. As long as that crisis persists, Tehran is sure to present sanctions relief as something that is necessary for the good of ordinary Iranians. But the truth is that no matter how many resources are technically available, the mullahs will never act in the best interests of their people. Only aggressive foreign monitoring of expenditures can compel them to alleviate the current public health crisis, rather than exploit it.
Hamid Enayat is a writer and human rights activist based in Paris. He has written frequently on Iranian and regional issues for thirty years. Recently, he has been collaborating with Media Express Press Agency.