It took several weeks for the Islamic Republic of Iran to start releasing information and statistics about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. As of mid-March 2020, the reports painted a worrisome picture: The death toll jumped from the hundreds to more than one thousand, and the number of infections was increasing at a very rapid pace. Researchers from Sharif University of Technology, a respected academic and investigative institution, estimated that deaths in Iran could reach one million unless the government implemented strong measures of containment, but this report was held from the public for a few days.
As can be expected, the Iranian government came under heavy criticism for its slow response and lack of transparency in the midst of a pandemic. President Hassan Rouhani dismissed critics with a speech that was mostly directed to cabinet members and not to the good people of Iran, many of whom decided to go into self-isolation even as most of the country prepared for Persian New Year celebrations. Before locking themselves in their homes, some Iranians held brief protests critical of the regime and even the Ayatollah, but these demonstrations were quickly dispersed by security forces.
Prior to the Iranian government taking the measures it should have taken weeks before, including the restriction of travel from China, journalists from the Associated Press reported on mass burial sites and crowded hospitals in Tehran. Sadly, this obfuscation by the Iranian regime is nothing new, but everyone can agree that it should never take place in the midst of a pandemic.
The Iranian Infodemic Issue
At the same time the COVID-19 outbreak in Iran was being swept under the carpet, Shiite militias in Iraq launched rocket attacks against military bases operated by coalition forces. These attacks, which caused American, British, and Iraqi casualties plus injuries, were carried out by radical groups believed to be supported by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite military unit of the Islamic Republic. News reports about these incidents were sparsely covered in Iran.
In addition to dealing with repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, people in Iran are also dealing with what is being described as an infodemic. Lacking information from the government, which should be a reliable source, Iranians are flocking to social media and other internet platforms to get their news. In these platforms, Iranians are finding an overabundance of information, but how much of it can be deemed to be credible? In the past, Iranians have encountered cases of misinformation and disinformation planted by radical individuals and groups closely aligned with the regime, and this has created a general sense of mistrust and confusion.
Even More U.S. Sanctions Against Iran
Not surprisingly, the aforementioned attacks in Iraq resulted in a new round of sanctions imposed by the United States on the Islamic Republic. These sanctions come at the worst time for the people of Iran, a country that is at risk of becoming as economically and diplomatically isolated as North Korea or Eritrea. The U.S. argues that Kataeb Hezbollah, a sectarian militia in Iraq, continues to operate under the auspice of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Leaders of the Islamic Republic could exert their political influence in the region to cut off ties with these groups, but they are mostly dragging their feet in this regard.
To say that the Iranian people are in dire straits would be an understatement. They are going through a terrible situation, and they have strongly voiced their displeasure through street protests, which have been suppressed with force. One of the few things that the Iranian regime has done right is to appeal to the international community for relief from sanctions during these trying times; alas, obfuscation and terrible handling of foreign policy are not going to help.
Amir Handjani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, has previously written about the disconnect that United States policy against Iran presents in relation to trading of humanitarian goods. We can think of many situations when American officials should think carefully about the potentially deadly impact of economic sanctions, and that time is certainly now. The Iranian people are in a precarious condition, and the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of their bumbling leaders as well as on the draconian sanctions imposed by the U.S.
Ever since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, diplomatic relations with Iran have tumbled. Animosity has grown, missiles have flown, and maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz has been disrupted. Within Iran, people are going through hardships such as ensuring that food, medicine, and personal hygiene items can be brought home. If things were difficult before the pandemic, let’s not think about how much worse they can get under extreme quarantine measures and long periods of diminished economic output.
The world cannot afford to have a populous nation such as Iran crumbling under the weight of extreme sanctions and the threat of a dangerous virus. Lifting sanctions for humanitarian relief purposes is what young Americans would refer to as a “no-brainer.” At the same time, political leaders in the Islamic Republic should reassess their foreign policy operations insofar as how they affect their own people. Iranian families were not happy with the missile attacks conducted against American targets in Iraq during January 2020. These are the same attacks that brought down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752.
Goodwill is one of the most powerful weapons in the diplomatic arsenal of any nation. The COVID-19 pandemic has given some nice examples of goodwill: China sending medical teams to Italy, Costa Rica giving shelter to African migrants headed to the U.S., and Cuba allowing the MS Braemar cruise ship to dock even with many passengers infected. The time is now for the U.S. and Iran to set aside their geopolitical differences and help each other alleviate the pandemic. Sanctions should be eased, and Iranian scientists should be helping the international community in terms of sharing results from research studies. The Iranian people deserve better.