Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader, met with IRGC and Iranian Army generals– 30 Jun 18. (IRNA)

By Track Persia

March 27, 2020

In the past few days, growing voices have called for the President Trump administration to lift US sanctions imposed on Iran in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis. These voices are presented by some world powers, representatives of the international community and Iran’s lobbyists in the United States and abroad. These voices have outraged the Trump administration and hardliners in the congress who have been pressing these bodies to support the United States in its endeavour to curb Iran’s expanding ballistic missile programme and sponsorship for proxies in the region, addition to ambitions of developing a nuclear bomb.

The United Nations has recently called for lifting sanctions on rogue regimes because it views that thee sanctions could heighten health risks for millions of people and weaken world efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic of new coronavirus which has affected thousands of people so far. The Iranian regime is among the rogue regimes the United Nations wants to be included in the sanctions relief.

Growing calls for sanctions relief

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has written a letter to the G-20 countries citing that he is encouraging the waiving of sanctions imposed on countries to ensure access to food, essential health supplies and COVID-19 medical support. At the same time, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has said in a statement that impeding medical efforts in one country could heighten the risk for humanity.  Bachelet has noted that sanctions on Iran have impeded access to essential medicines and medical equipment, including respirators and protective equipment for health-care workers.” The UN official has also warned that the epidemic is spreading to neighbouring countries, which will strain health services in these countries, in his view.

China which is using the coronavirus outbreak to boost its reputation for global cooperation and Russia which has been affected by sanctions by US and European Union for invading Crimea are the first countries to step up for lifting sanctions on Tehran.  For example, China’s ambassador to UN Zhang Jun has blamed the United States for “harming Iranian people” with its sanctions on Tehran. He believes that the US sanctions on Tehran made the situation there worse.

Trump administration has exerted great efforts to convince the international community and world powers to take a united stand against Tehran. Trump opposes the Iran nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the administration of his predecessor Obama negotiated for. His approach of imposing severe sanctions on Iran, which is part of his “maximum pressure” campaign, is aimed to force Iran to negotiate its nuclear deal better than Obama.

However, Trump’s presidency seems to be seeking to avoid an all-out war with Iran and focusing on limiting military actions as it is clearly reflected in the US drown strike that Killed Iran’s key figure General Qassem Soleimani in early January near Baghdad airport.

Disagreement and challenges  

It appears that there are varying ideas within Trump administration on what an acceptable agreement with Iran might look like if the latter under Trump “maximum pressure” policy agrees to negotiate a deal conductive to US interests.

However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his 2018 speech on Iran laid out a series of demands that went beyond Iran nuclear deal to fit into the administration approach to include Iran’s foreign policy and its sponsorship of regional proxies such as Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Houthis in Yemen. Trump appears he does not have interest in this approach and prefers an approach that focuses on imposing severe sanctions as a key tool to force Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal and change its behaviour.

The growing calls for lifting the US sanctions on Iran pose a new challenge to Trump administration which it is relying heavily on imposing severe sanctions to maximise pressure to force Iran to negotiate. The most worrying for the administration is if it makes concessions on sanctions, it may not be able to reverse down the road.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Trump administration sanctions policy saying that they do not target imports of medicines, medical equipment or other humanitarian goods. Addressing the sanctions relief calls, Pompeo said that the Iranian regime had spent over $16 billion on terror activities abroad since 2012 and it has used sanctions relief since the 2015 nuclear deal to fund its proxies in the region.

Will sanctions relief really benefit Iranians?

It is worth noting that just over the past few months, the Iranian regime attacked 5 percent of global oil supply, stormed the US embassy in Baghdad, arrested the British ambassador, took several European hostages, killed more than 1500 Iranian protesters and ordered its proxy militias in Iraq to suppress protests that led to over 600 deaths and wounding over 20 thousands more.

More recently the regime blew a passenger jet killing all those onboard and it has been ordering its proxies in Iraq to strike US personnel killing and wounding dozens of American and Iraqis, in addition to other nationalities. Lifting these sanctions will only empower the tyrannical regime in Iran and support its system which is based on terrorising Iranian people and posing threats to its neighbouring countries and international security.

Moreover, the regime appears it is not very much concerned about the spread of the virus among Iranians. For example, the first months of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran, the regime did not close Shiite holy shrines, stop some pilgrims to lick tombs or arrest clerics, some of whom hold official positions, for encouraging people to visit these places, or telling the public that the coronavirus could be cured by spreading essential oils on their anuses.

The administration knows that Iran’s Islamic Republic Guards Corps (IRGC) controls around 40% of Iran’s economy that does not only include military and security sectors but also includes Iran’s imports and exports. It is aware how $1.4 billion hostage ransom payment that the Obama administration gave to the Iranian regime was counterproductive and empowered the latter’s military rather than supporting those Iranians who were most in need.

Multiple regional reports have shown that before and since the virus began to spread in Iran, senior Iranian leaders pocketed around £1 billion worth of aid that Europe sent to Iran to combat the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Commenting on these reports, Pompeo said in one of the first public accounting of Iran’s alleged misuse of humanitarian funds that were meant to be used in cases such as the coronavirus outbreak: “Regime officials stole over a billion euros intended for medical supplies.” Pompeo also said that Iranian officials “continue to hoard desperately needed masks, gloves, and other medical equipment for sale on the black market.”

The State Department made clear in facts sheets distributed to reporters that the billions in humanitarian funds Iran stole could have been used to fight the coronavirus in Iran. This includes misusing millions of dollars in late 2019 to purchase tobacco instead of medical supplies. The Iranian authorities have diverted a large amount of money in humanitarian aid to IRGC, Iran’s nuclear programme, ballistic missile or terrorist activities.

The Iranian regime which has called on the international community to provide relief to Iranian people has not ceased funding its proxies in the region such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and the Houthis in Yemen. Furthermore, the regime has not stopped building ballistic missiles which the regime clearly invests in hundreds of millions of dollars. The most costly is Iran’s nuclear programme which the regime alleges it is for civilian energy purposes, which does not make any sense, given Iran is a gas- and oil-rich country and has the ability to produce much cheaper energy if it upgrades its refineries and pipelines. It is worth noting that Iran has rejected direct US offer of medical assistance outright.

However, it seems the Iranian regime will be suffering the impacts of the severity of the coronavirus disease outbreak anyway. At the highest voices calling for lifting US sanctions on Iran, only time will tell whether or not the Trump administration will change its “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.