The whole word is dealing with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, but among the countries that have suffered the worst is Iran. And as far as some critics of the Trump administration are concerned, the blame for the growing toll of the sick and dead in that country belongs to the United States.
As the Washington Free Beacon reported earlier this week, former members of President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy team are using the crisis as an excuse to re-litigate President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the 2015 nuclear deal and to reimpose sanctions on the Islamist regime. According to Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, the continuing sanctions on Iran are a “moral abomination” that is leading to deaths of innocent Iranians.
Rhodes is remembered for dubbing the Washington press corps his boss’s “media echo chamber” because of the ease with which Obama’s team manipulated them into repeating their often-duplicitous talking points favoring the nuclear pact. But in this case, he is acting as an echo chamber for the theocratic regime in Tehran, which has also been appealing to the world for sympathy because of the devastating impact of the coronavirus. They, too, are claiming that the economic sanctions that America has reinstated are the reason why so many of their people are dying from the virus.
A spokesperson for Iran’s U.N. mission claimed that Washington’s move this week to add to the existing restrictions on Iran by sanctioning five international firms that were assisting Tehran’s efforts to sell its oil abroad was “beyond cruel” and demonstrated Trump’s lack of “humaneness.”
On the surface, these complaints about Trump’s policy seem reasonable. At a time when the world ought to be coming together and putting differences aside in order to fight the virus, why would the United States continue its efforts to isolate Iran? The pandemic’s impact on Iran has been particularly harsh with it suffering the fifth most reported cases, and trailing only China and Italy in the number of reported coronavirus-related deaths.
Seen from that perspective, maintaining U.S. sanctions on Iran at this time—let alone toughening them—does seem harsh or even vindictive.
But the argument in favor of lifting sanctions rests on a false assumption that the sanctions are preventing Iran from getting material that might alleviate the suffering there. That is completely false. Humanitarian aid and medical supplies are exempted by law from the American sanctions that much of the world has been forced—often reluctantly—to observe.
As U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday at the president’s press conference about the coronavirus, the humanitarian channel to Iran is “wide open.” Indeed, the administration offered to help Tehran fight the pandemic last month, as its spread there became an issue and weeks before Americans started treating the threat seriously.
The problem in Iran is twofold.
The toll of victims there is so high for the same reason that the virus killed so many people in China. As soon as cases of coronavirus suffered there, the despotic Iranian government sought to cover it up rather than to spread the alarm about the peril.
The Iranian people have good reason to find fault with the ayatollahs who rule them. Instead of devoting its oil wealth to helping its citizens, they have lavished it on foreign terrorist groups that serve as the regime’s auxiliaries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Rather than invest in their own people’s welfare, they have engaged in foreign adventures. Their intervention in the Syrian Civil War, which helped keep their barbarous client—Bashar Assad and his terrorist partners—in power in Damascus, was a military success but did nothing to help ordinary Iranians. The same is true for all of the oil wealth that they have squandered on a nuclear program that Obama’s deal allowed to remain in existence, and thanks to that pact, will allow the regime to acquire a weapon once the agreement expires.
There’s also the fact that both the country’s “supreme leader”—Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime entity that both runs its foreign terrorist efforts and controls much of Iran’s economy, are sitting on vast fortunes that could alleviate much of their nation’s suffering. Instead, they continue to use their considerable resources to finance terrorism and keep a tight lid on dissent. The IRGC murdered hundreds of Iranians who protested against the regime’s misrule last fall, not to mention the many women who have been beaten and/or imprisoned for refusing to wear hijabs—a true war on women that most Western liberals have ignored.
While Trump’s critics want him to let up on his “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at forcing Iran to start behaving like a normal country and cease its terrorism, as well as give up any hope of a nuclear weapon, Tehran hasn’t let up on its misbehavior. Iranian proxies are still attacking Americans in Iraq, and aiding terrorists in both Lebanon and Gaza, where they continue to push for conflict with Israel, which the regime has vowed to destroy.
While Americans are sympathetic to the suffering of Iranians, the answer to their problems is in efforts to force the regime to change its behavior. The only way to do that is to continue Trump’s pressure campaign.
Iran’s leaders are counting on Trump being defeated in November. That’s why former Vice President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, ought to give them no encouragement and declare that the United States won’t return to Obama’s policy of appeasement. But if Biden is intent on reviving a failed nuclear deal that enriched and empowered the regime, that won’t help the Iranian people. It will just mean more grief and suffering for Iranians who were left vulnerable to oppression, as well as disease, by the cruelty of their own leaders and the naïveté of those who supported the nuclear pact.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.