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Viruses do not care about geopolitics, and they refuse to abide by US sanctions policy. Indeed, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 disease, has demonstrated that despite the United States’ best efforts to isolate them, sanctioned countries like Iran and North Korea remain as connected as ever to the rest of the world. Instead, sanctions have weakened their health care systems, making their populations more vulnerable to disease outbreaks and their governments less able to respond to the spreading virus.
The Covid-19 pandemic represents only the latest example of how policies intended to affect a single country are counterproductive in an interconnected world. US foreign policy has historically viewed specific countries or nonstate actors as threats and relied on the military to respond to such threats. But in the context of enhanced global interdependence, dangers are more complex, often threatening the entire system rather than any individual nation-state. The United States cannot bomb a virus, and an attitude of “America First” is sure to discourage the cooperation necessary to address a global pandemic.
The spread of the coronavirus demonstrates the extent to which existing approaches are inadequate to addressing planet-sized problems. Whereas North Korea illustrates that even the self-imposed exile pursued by the Kim Jong-un government cannot protect it from the spread of a global pandemic, the outbreak of the virus in Iran reveals both the ineffectiveness and myopia of using sanctions as a tool of foreign policy.
Iran is one of the countries that has been hit hardest by Covid-19, with over 18,000 cases reported, the third-highest total after China and Italy, and over 1,200 recorded deaths as of March 19. Iran’s vulnerability to the virus is the result of a combination of forces and factors. As a result of US-led sanctions, Iran has become increasingly dependent on China, which made the government hesitate to distance the country from China during the initial phase of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Moreover, US sanctions have also weakened Iran’s health care sector, complicating the importation of basic items like masks and disinfectant, and dissuading pharmaceutical companies from selling to Iran. Even before the outbreak, a 2019 report from Human Rights Watch found that “restrictions on financial transactions drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports,” including medicines and medical equipment.
The crisis in Iran was not entirely imposed from the outside. The Iranian government was slow to respond, initially playing down the severity of the potential crisis, going forward with parliamentary elections on February 21 and not enforcing the closure of religious shrines in the holy city of Qom. But the infection and death of several high-ranking government officials soon belied their efforts to project composure. In the weeks since, the government has struggled to contain the virus while, simultaneously, preventing widespread panic among a population already fed up with economic and political frustrations.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the harmful role played by sanctions, which have not only hindered in its ability to respond to the crisis but also disincentivized the measures Iran would need to take to prevent the virus’s transmission to other countries. Oil exports have dropped precipitously; therefore, tourism offers one of the few areas of economic growth for Iran. The majority of visitors are religious pilgrims, but in 2019 the government also worked to expand electronic visas to ease entry for tourists drawn by the country’s rich cultural heritage.
An unfortunate result of this dependence on tourism is that what happens with Covid-19 in Iran certainly does not stay there. Iraq, from which 25 percent of all visitors to Iran came in 2017, has now banned public gatherings and closed schools, universities, and government offices. In a country ravaged by decades of war and UN sanctions, and with only 10 doctors per 10,000 people, an outbreak would be devastating.
The country sending the second-highest number of tourists to Iran is Afghanistan, which accounted for 15 percent of tourist visas in 2017. Despite efforts to improve poor health outcomes in Afghanistan, the system is inadequate and worsening; in 2019, there were 34 attacks on health care facilities. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan possess the infrastructure to withstand an outbreak of coronavirus. Yet the pilgrims are likely to keep heading to Iran; religious practices are notoriously challenging for states to regulate, and when religious authority and political authority are at odds, the former usually prevails. This underscores the shortsightedness of the US administration’s attempt to isolate a country that is a source of religious guidance for millions of people worldwide.
Moreover, in addition to attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims each year, Iran hosts almost 2 million Afghan refugees. This could allow the virus to take hold among communities that are at exceptionally high risk because of the cramped conditions of refugee camps and the lack of sufficient medical care and sanitation. As it is, refugees and migrants are all too often demonized for their perceived role in spreading disease. As the coronavirus spreads, xenophobic rhetoric may give way to violence as affected communities perceive refugees and migrants as a threat not only to their jobs but to their very survival.
The Iranian government is in a difficult position: insufficient resources to combat the spread of the virus, a frustrated and frightened population, and minimal support from the international community. The US decision to activate a Swiss humanitarian channel on February 27 to allow aid to bypass the sanctions is unlikely to offer sufficient assistance. The anti-Iran group United Against Nuclear Iran is urging pharmaceutical companies not to sell medicines to Iran, despite the fact that the Treasury Department had granted them licenses designed to enable humanitarian exceptions. Companies, banks, and governments are loath to inadvertently violate US sanctions and face the consequences, so many refrain from pursuing sanctions waivers and other legal means of engaging with Iran.
Yet, as the extent of the crisis in Iran and its global implications becomes more apparent, the risk of angering the United States may be outweighed by fears that the virus in Iran will go unchecked. The UK government, in partnership with France and Germany, announced on March 2 that it would send material and financial support to Iran. China sent a medical team and supplies, including 5,000 nucleic acid test kits, to Iran. The World Health Organization sent doctors and supplies from Dubai on an Emirati military aircraft. The United Arab Emirates is one of Iran’s archrivals, so the assistance from their military represents a positive example of prioritizing global interests over national squabbles.
The coronavirus exposes the shortsightedness of US foreign policy: The effects of sanctions and armed conflict are not only counterproductive; their repercussions are not limited to the countries at which they are directed.
Iran is at the epicenter of the outbreak in the Middle East, and the United States should rescind sanctions and partner with allies to provide its people with immediate humanitarian aid. The severity of the current crisis exposes the way existing American foreign policy too often fails to consider downstream effects. It is time to develop a new mode of doing policy. The coronavirus will run its disastrous course, but problems like climate change are only intensifying. It is vital to the United States’ national interest to adopt policies that work to resolve global crises rather than to exacerbate them.