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Trump Could Shock the World and Actually Save Iran

The president must recognize that his 'maximum pressure' campaign is all but handing ordinary Iranians a death warrant.

Volunteers from the Iranian Red Crescent disinfect villages on April 11, 2020 near Sari, Iran. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

Recent tensions in the Persian Gulf cannot cover the fact that Iran is facing catastrophe due to coronavirus and its impact on the Iranian economy and people, only made worse by continuing U.S. sanctions. In fact those tensions could be rising from the desperation Iran finds itself in as it struggles with Washington’s “maximum pressure campaign” amid mounting death tolls, dwindling supplies, a restive population, and crashing oil prices.

This is the moment President Donald Trump could step up—off Twitter and into a more diplomatic role—to find peace at a time of a global health crisis, through relaxing the sanctions, not enforcing more.

This might sound impossible considering this week’s events. The U.S. has accused Iran of sending 11 “fast boats” to harass U.S warships stationed in the Gulf. Trump responded with a tweet signaling he has instructed the Navy to shoot down and destroy any Iranian vessel that continues the harassment at sea. The Iranains then came back with news that they had successfully launched its first military satellite into space after a string of failures.

The coronavirus has posed a serious challenge for many countries, especially the United States. The pandemic is causing a series of social, health, economic, and political issues to resurface everywhere. However, it affords the president yet another chance to serve as a world leader. He can do this by finally pursuing a human rights-based foreign policy. And it could start with Iran. 

Iran is in a dire situation. The Associated Press reported that, “The death toll in Iran from the coronavirus pandemic is likely nearly double the officially reported figures, due to undercounting and because not everyone with breathing problems has been tested for the virus.” Iran has recently reported a death toll of 4,777 and 76,389 confirmed cases. However, given that the statistics are derived from patients who had access to testing and the limited availability of  testing, Iran’s parliament research center notes in a report that the actual statistics are “8 to 10 times higher.” Another expert estimated that over 900,000 Iranians have been infected— which means Iran likely has the highest number of cases in the world.

Without a doubt, Iran’s government has mismanaged its resources to mitigate the crisis. The government was reluctant to closing public spaces with large gatherings, delayed implementing social distancing measures, and initially disregarded the severity of the virus by failing to place preventive measures. But Iran also lacks basic equipment. Last month, Jawad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, tweeted that there is a severe shortage of medical supplies, listing the required essentials to combat the virus. Zarif’s tweet noted that healthcare “efforts are stymied by vast shortages caused by restrictions on our people’s access to medicine/equipment.” A significant factor in the lack of such vital resources is the U.S. sanctions. 

U.S. sanctions have debilitated Tehran’s ability to acquire medical equipment to combat the virus. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, U.S. economic sanctions have threatened the Iranians’ right to health, limited the Iranian’s access to essential medicine, and led to a shortage of vital medical equipment. The coronavirus exacerbates this. Although humanitarian transactions are exempted, in reality, it has had the opposite effect. Human Rights Watch’s timely report reveals that:

“…broad US sanctions against Iranian banks, coupled with aggressive rhetoric from US officials, have drastically constrained Iran’s ability to finance such humanitarian imports…At the core of the harmful knock-on effects of renewed US sanctions on Iran is that in practice, these sanctions have largely deterred international banks and firms from participating in commercial or financial transactions with Iran, including for exempted humanitarian transactions, due to the fear of triggering US secondary sanctions on themselves.” 

Washington’s tough rhetoric has resulted in over-compliance by banks and pharmaceutical companies. The recent military tension in the Gulf could aggravate this all the more. Trump resorting to tough rhetoric without the presence of a true, imminent threat could further discourage humanitarian transactions with Iran.

Earlier this year, Washington established a channel with Switzerland to increase humanitarian imports to Iran and eased banking restrictions. Which is great, though not enough. Trump also offered assistance to Iran amid the pandemic—but it also slammed it with additional sanctions

The gravity of the crisis gives him an alternative avenue to steer away from his normal course of action. He can do this by expending political capital to make it clear that banks and pharmaceutical companies are welcome to engage in humanitarian transactions with Tehran. He should acknowledge that in practice U.S. sanctions have reduced humanitarian imports to Iran, and that this should no longer continue. For starters, he can do this by holding a press conference. And even better, he can tweet about it afterward. While consistently cutting back on his harsh rhetoric and then working with the State and Treasury Departments to formulate a rights-based policy, Trump’s diplomatic initiative would likely encourage relevant actors to engage in humanitarian transactions with Iran.  

This approach wouldn’t indicate that Washington is turning a blind eye to the Iranian government’s human rights violations. Michael Page, Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division, states in a recent report that “Iranian authorities have systematically repressed dissent for decades”—which has led to a  myriad of abuses. In addition to that, it has also a history of dismissing the right to health for Afghan refugees, including failing to hold hospitals to account that refuse to provide coronavirus treatment to Afghans. Despite the government’s grim human rights record, such a diplomatic gesture would signal that Washington is prioritizing the well-being of Iranian civilians over punishing the Iranian regime. 

The current global health crisis has made it apparent what the absence of global leadership looks like. Trump once said,  “The past does not have to define the future.” He’s right. In this way, perhaps he can start changing that.

Sabera Azizi previously worked for the Afghan government. She is currently a freelance writer focused on foreign affairs. Sabera can be followed on Twitter @saberaazizi.


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