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OPINION

Coronavirus is not a reason to lift Iran sanctions

By ELI LAKE | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: March 24, 2020

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did something unusual last week. In an open letter to the American people, he appealed to their conscience to end the sanctions against his country.

The context, of course, was the coronavirus. The pandemic has closed schools, canceled public ceremonies and suspended businesses, he wrote, and yet the sanctions on Iran remain. “Can the American people accept that these malicious pressures are brought to bear on the Iranian people in their name, as a result of their vote, and by the means of their taxes?” he asked.

Rouhani’s public letter dovetails with his regime’s broader strategy since 2018, when President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed secondary sanctions on Iran’s oil. Iran has escalated its military pressure, while playing the victim. At the beginning of the year, the U.S. responded in kind, killing the country’s most important general, Qassem Soleimani.

With the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran, the country’s outlook is bleak. As of this writing, there were 20,610 cases in Iran, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. That number is probably low. As the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood has reported, estimates suggest Iran is facing more than half a million cases. Faced with such a huge public health crisis, Iran’s leaders are understandably pleading for economic relief.

The problem is that even in Iran’s moment of need, its regime remains aggressive and defiant, as Bloomberg’s Bobby Ghosh has noted. This month alone, Iranian proxies attacked a U.S. base in Iraq, the regime denied access to international nuclear inspectors in Iran and the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps suggested the virus might be a U.S. biological weapon.

If Rouhani wants the U.S. to relieve the sanctions against his country, then the country’s supreme leader needs to end militia attacks on Americans in Iraq, allow U.N. inspectors access to all of the country’s nuclear sites and stop spreading propaganda about the virus. That is also the view of a senior State Department who spoke to me on Saturday.

That said, the U.S. has tried to make it easier for the regime to purchase or trade for medicine and hospital equipment since the pandemic started. Last month, the U.S. and Swiss governments established a humanitarian aid channel to make it easier for banks and financial institutions to underwrite such transactions with Iran. The Iranians have not used it to make significant purchases. (The sanctions against Iran already include an exemption for humanitarian aid such as food and medicine, but banks shied away from it, fearing the aid could be diverted and expose their institutions to fines and penalties from the Treasury Department.)

The truth is that there is little anyone can do for Iran at the moment. Even if the oil sanctions were lifted tomorrow, the price of oil has plummeted. The country’s main export will not yield very much revenue to help fight the pandemic. Even if it did, an infusion of cash would not fix the public health crisis for which Iran’s leaders were not prepared.

Fred Kagan, an Iran policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told me he thinks it unlikely that Iran’s regime will collapse as a result of the coronavirus. Nonetheless, he thinks the possibility is greater today than it was before the outbreak. Members of the military and internal security militias might choose to stay home and care for sick relatives, he said, than do the violence necessary to disperse restless crowds if protests begin anew.

As for lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran, Kagan says that would be pointless to discuss now. “When the Iranian government actually articulates a coherent set of needs, we can have a sensible conversation about what the U.S. should do,” he said. “They have not done that.”

In his open letter to the American people, Rouhani notes that “the path of sanctions and pressure has never been successful and will never be so in the future.” Instead, he writes, “It is human discourse and action that produce results.” That much is true. Rouhani should try leading by example.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for The Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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