Bessma Momani is professor at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
The novel coronavirus knows no borders, and Iran is one of the countries that has been most affected by the deadly pandemic. Around 25,000 Iranians have been infected so far, while there have been more than 2,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Both figures, however, are most likely underestimates, since test kits in Iran are limited; media reports have also suggested that burials are happening without attributing the cause of death to COVID-19. Researchers have estimated that with its alarmingly steep infection rate and lack of accompanying containment, Iran’s outbreak won’t peak until May – and, all told, could cost 3.5-million lives.
To help them tackle this issue, Iran has requested an emergency US$5-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But with the largest voting bloc at the IMF, the U.S. will most likely veto Iran’s request – and might even unveil a fresh set of economic sanctions.
But Iran’s request for global financing should be heeded. This is not the time to play geopolitics with the fate of people’s health and lives.
Without question, the regime has proven incompetent in this crisis. Numerous high-ranking Iranian government officials were exposed from the very start of the outbreak and were key vectors of transmission into the rest of the country. Nearly one-tenth of Iran’s members of parliament contracted the virus, and at least two senior government officials and two diplomats have died from the disease. There have also been reports that the regime’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – which already has a high percentage of infected cases – has been hoarding or reselling donated supplies.
Then, despite clear signs that the virus was already out of control, Iranian officials insisted that its legislative election – already a sham, given that all the “moderate” candidates had been disqualified from participating – was to proceed on Feb. 21 anyway. Hardliners were more interested in cementing and showcasing their presumed victory at the polls, and many of their supporters, who also tended to be religious conservatives, dominated among the few who queued to vote. Invariably, many of them have contracted the virus.
But left unchecked, Iran’s issues could be just the start of a much bigger outbreak in the broader region. The country’s pandemic epicentre is now in the spiritual city of Qom, a centre of Shiite seminaries and religious sites. Incompetent religious leaders failed to contain the spread of the virus by refusing to shut down large gatherings and by allowing religious tourists to make pilgrimages to shrines and sites with high foot traffic, where prayers involved commonly touched surface areas. As a result, Iran has become a likely conduit through which the virus has spread into neighbours such as Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where cases first presented themselves among members of their respective Shiite communities, many of whom had returned home from Iranian religious sites.
In Iran, medics, nurses and doctors are dying on the front lines trying to combat this virus without some of the most basic protective equipment and supplies. The inability to get these needed supplies into Iran can be traced back to U.S. President Donald Trump’s harsh sanctions a year ago; while humanitarian aid and medical supplies are technically exempt from U.S.-imposed sanctions, the reality is that banking and money-transfer systems have been so unnerved by the potential for legal retribution that even medical and pharmaceutical imports have not materialized, meaning U.S.-imposed sanctions are hurting average Iranians.
Yes, Iran already produces a healthy amount of its own pharmaceutical and medical products; for a developing country, Iran has some of the world’s best scientists and doctors, and its scale for industrial production is strong. But we have seen how disruptions in global supply chains can handicap even the world’s most developed and advanced economies.
So now it is time to put politics aside and allow the IMF financing package to go through. The IMF can put in place strong conditions on the use of this emergency financing, ensuring funds go directly toward Iran’s overburdened health-care system, restocking medical supplies and producing life-saving pharmaceutical products. Iranians have suffered under the country’s autocratic regime, but they will suffer further if the U.S. chooses to double down on the regime during this global pandemic.
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