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Throttled by U.S. Sanctions, Iran Struggles With the Coronavirus

Hopefully this moment will lead to more diplomacy, including between Washington and Tehran.

A photo shows a view of empty Valiasr Square and link roads due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, on March 16, 2020 in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

For an American, a certain amount of humility is required when criticizing the response of other countries to the coronavirus pandemic. In the case of Iran, however, the government has done so poorly that even Donald Trump’s performance looks less dreadful.

Cases of the virus began showing up in Iran before the February 21 parliamentary elections, including two that were fatal. The contagion apparently came to theological center of Qom via Chinese workers building a solar power plant there. Yet the Iranian government did not postpone the elections and waited weeks to close down Shi’ite pilgrimage sites in Qom and Mashhad, allowing the disease to spread throughout the country.

Iran also did not initially stop flights to China, which has become the Islamic Republic’s economic lifeline because of American sanctions and Europe’s apparent inability to circumvent them. As of March 16, it had not imposed any quarantines, although officials did urge Iranians to stay at home.

The Iranian government has been publishing daily statistics—more than 14,000 cases and more than 700 deaths so far—but few in Iran believe the numbers. As in the U.S., a paucity of tests means that the true extent of the crisis is not known. In Qom, authorities have excavated a massive new gravesite so large it can be easily seen from outer space, suggesting that the worst is yet to come.

Iran entered this dire situation at a time when the government was already extremely unpopular, with an economy crippled by sanctions and minuscule trust in most institutions and political leaders.

Iranians are still furious over the regime’s failure to come clean quickly about the accidental shoot-down on January 8 of a Ukrainian airliner, which a panicked Revolutionary Guardsman mistook for incoming American fire during a serious escalation of U.S.-Iran tensions. The government’s lies led to a spate of protests, though not on the scale of the massive demonstrations last year that followed an abrupt decision to raise gasoline prices. Those protests were brutally suppressed, with the death toll estimated between several hundred and more than a thousand lives.

Amid the current situation, the usual suspects in Washington have resumed their predictions of imminent regime change. How can such an unpopular government endure, they ask.

Clearly, the challenge is serious. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has taken to tweeting a video of a sermon he gave in 1985, during the Iran-Iraq war, when he continued speaking at Friday prayers in Tehran despite a bomb explosion. In the sermon, he blames the explosion on the “hypocrites”—a reference to the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a militant Iranian group that supported the 1979 revolution and then sided with Saddam Hussein after losing out in a power struggle. The crowd responds with the usual chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”

Iranian animosity toward the U.S. is understandable, given the Trump administration’s decision to quit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal despite Tehran being in compliance with it and to impose crushing sanctions. But Iran, which is also seeking emergency relief from the International Monetary Fund, also needs the U.S. to not block a requested $5 billion dollar loan.

Now would be a great time for some COVID-19 related diplomacy.

Signs of cracks in the regime’s rejection of Israel have emerged. An influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, 93, told an Iranian newspaper on March 11 that it was permissible to obtain a vaccine for COVID-19 from the Jewish state if Israeli scientists devised one first.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has pleaded for medical supplies and a suspension of American sanctions to allow Iran to more effectively combat the virus. So far, however, support for Iran has come mainly from the country that was the source of the pandemic—China.

It would be a true silver lining if COVID-19 were to trigger an outbreak of global diplomacy, including between the U.S. and Iran. One possibility might be progress on freeing Americans jailed in Iran and Iranians detained in America (as well as political prisoners in Iran from other countries).

Unfortunately, tensions have only risen following a new spate of tit-for-tat attacks between Iran-backed militias and U.S. forces in Iraq. And while the Treasury Department has taken several steps to ease financial transactions for the supply of medicine and medical devices to Iran, there have been no indications that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy is being reconsidered, despite its failure to moderate Iran’s regional and nuclear posture.

It appears that the crisis will only push Iran deeper into the arms of China and Russia and strengthen those in the regime who reject reconciliation with the West. The Revolutionary Guards, who are handling much of the response to the virus and building emergency medical facilities, will grow even more powerful as Iran comes to look less and less like a theocracy with a thin republican veneer and more like a military dictatorship.

The likelihood of massive protests also seems slim given government directives to stay home and rational fears that mass gatherings will only spread the virus.

Iranians, as always, are coping the best they can, using fatalism and humor to endure. There have been a spate of videos posted on social media showing doctors and nurses—in full hazmat suits—dancing to Persian music to keep up their spirits and those of their anxious compatriots. Iranian pop stars have posted videos in advance of the Persian New Year, March 21. That will mark the end of one of the country’s most difficult periods and the beginning of an uncertain new one.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council and tweets @BarbaraSlavin1.

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