Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
Despite mounting international pressure, the Trump administration has been holding out against the idea of easing sanctions on Iran.
There were no signs of that defense cracking until Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was challenged about whether the White House would ever consider reevaluating its stance, he responded by saying, “We evaluate all of our policies constantly, so the answer is – would we ever rethink? – Of course.”
Any reasonable policymaker should be willing to reconsider positions. But the Trump administration should not lose confidence in its commitment to “maximum pressure.” Fortunately, Pompeo’s latest remarks don’t do much to suggest that that confidence is flagging. Instead, they seemed to imply that the administration is not rethinking its position at the moment, but would do so if certain conditions were met.
Judging from the assertive policies that Trump and Pompeo have championed for Iran during their time in office, those conditions can be expected to include substantial changes in the theocratic regime’s behavior. Soon after assuming his role as America’s top diplomat, Pompeo specifically outlined a number of these changes, which included an end to Iran’s support for regional terrorist groups, and curtailment of the regime’s ballistic missile program.
These are valid, even necessary demands. And compelling Iran to fulfill them is as important today as it was in the time before coronavirus. While it is true that Iran has been suffering a particularly bad outbreak of COVID-19, this is no reason to grant relief to the regime. In fact, Tehran’s incompetence and selfishness in dealing with that crisis arguably underscore the need for maximum pressure.
The White House has typically had the appropriate response for appeals communicated to it on Iran’s behalf. Pompeo himself has repeatedly noted that existing sanctions do not impact Iran’s access to resources that might improve public health. The measures re-imposed or newly imposed by the Trump administration since 2018 include explicit exceptions for humanitarian goods, including medicine.
As recently as Wednesday, Rouhani said in a televised cabinet meeting that US-led economic pressure had had no impact on the regime’s management of the coronavirus outbreak. “We are almost self-sufficient in producing all necessary equipment to fight the coronavirus,” he said. “We have been much more successful than many other countries in the fight against this disease.”
On another occasion, Rouhani specifically compared Iranian and American responses to the global pandemic, arguing that the former had been superior. The assertion is, of course, ridiculous. The official figures released by the Health Ministry might suggest that the crisis is progressing more slowly in Iran today, but in reality it has been out of control practically since the first cases were acknowledged by Iranian officials. Nonetheless, Rouhani is correct when he says US sanctions had no impact on his country’s response. That response would have been catastrophic regardless of the status of sanctions, and it will remain that way regardless of whether sanctions are lifted in the days to come.
Neither Rouhani nor any other Iranian official can be expected to admit the true impact that the outbreak has had so far. Doing so would leave little doubt about the regime’s culpability for deaths that number in the thousands. Drawing upon intelligence resources inside Iran, the leading Iranian opposition group has determined that over 16,000 people have died since February from COVID-19, out of hundreds of thousand infected. Notably, though, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) is unequivocally opposed to removing sanctions and making new financial resources available to the regime that created this situation.
Perhaps if the severity of Iran’s crisis was more widely understood by the international community, it would be more apt to share this view. Instead, many European policymakers have formed their opinions about that crisis on the basis of public statements from Rouhani and other officials. More to the point, they have formed their opinions on the basis of statements that were specifically tailored for consumption by the international community.
It is only in that context that the Rouhani administration highlights the official death toll – an absurd underestimate of 3,000 – or the tens of thousands of people who have been hospitalized amidst the pandemic. But in communications with the domestic population, Iranian officials speak of empty beds in intensive care units, and of their intention to send badly underutilized coronavirus tests to foreign allies and neighbors.
Both types of statements are pure propaganda. And when understood as such, both types of statements point to the value of maintaining economic sanctions even at this time. While the actual situation spins out of control, Tehran is preoccupied with manipulating public narratives about coronavirus in order to serve its own ends. And given the number of Western policymakers challenging the Trump administration over sanctions, it is clear that outward-bound propaganda is having the intended effect.
Fortunately, that effect won’t be especially meaningful unless the US capitulates to the pressure, and there is little sign of it doing so. While staying the course on sanctions, the White House should make a point of highlighting the inherent contradictions in the Iranian regime’s public statements. At the same time, it should highlight the vast differences between official Iranian death tolls and the figures obtained by the likes of the NCRI. By doing so, the US might help to convince its allies that Iran’s appeals are no more trustworthy under these circumstances than at other times.
And when it becomes clear that the “self-sufficient” Iranian regime has so badly manhandled the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps the people who are concerned for the Iranian people’s well-being will begin demanding that international experts take the response out of Tehran’s hands and provide the civilian population with the relief they can only obtain once they are free of the mullahs’ influence.