As the Iranian people suffer devastating losses from COVID-19, humanitarian relief makes sense, but emergency aid should not weaken the US-led “maximum pressure” campaign, the main line of defense against resurgent Iranian adventurism and malign activity.
The combination of malice and incompetence of the Islamic Republic has killed thousands of its citizens over the past year. In November 2019, an estimated 1,500 Iranians were murdered in the streets by the regime during protests against a tax hike on gasoline. Little more than a month later, an airliner carrying 146 Iranians was shot out of the sky by two Iranian surface-to-air missiles shortly after taking off from Tehran’s international airport. Now, the regime’s bumbling response to the coronavirus combined with country’s crumbling medical system is likely to needlessly kill tens of thousands more.
But the radical and dangerous nature of the Iranian regime complicates global efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the country’s 80 million citizens coping with the ongoing pandemic. The leadership in Tehran has not only mismanaged the pandemic, but it has committed a wide range of offenses in the realms of nuclear activity, regional subversion, and human rights violations that have led to international sanctions against major segments of the economy. Disentangling the regime from the “civilian” economy is made especially difficult by the major, if opaque, role that shadowy forces like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) play in the Iranian market.
Increasing humanitarian assistance to the people of Iran as they cope with coronavirus is warranted, but calls to do so by pausing the “maximum pressure” campaign against the regime, clearing the Iranian request for a $5 billion IMF loan, and providing technical assistance to Iran are reckless and misguided.
First, there is little basis for conflating humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people with halting the “maximum pressure” campaign targeting the regime. Sanctioning additional companies, for example those affiliated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s SETAD fund, should in no way be considered “morally wrong” or incompatible with increasing humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people. As David Jerome describes the Supreme Leader’s pernicious economic empire in Examining War and Conflict Around the World, “Khamenei appears to have his own personal slush fund, estimated at up to $95 billion, which is untaxed and mostly ill-gotten, which is used by his elite group, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to wreak havoc in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza.”
Providing the corrupt and bungling regime with an IMF loan would be hazardous at worst and ineffective at best.
Until Iran’s malign activity in the nuclear and other realms is reined in, exerting “maximum pressure” on the regime is a strategic necessity to gain leverage against the regime and bring it back to the negotiating table. This is not a peculiarity of President Trump’s unorthodox foreign policy but inherited wisdom from the previous administration which brought Tehran to sign the 2015 nuclear deal. It is also worth recalling that if the regime were desperate for an end to “maximum pressure,” it could ensure that designations related to its nuclear program were lifted in short order if it would simply agree to the “gold standard” of non-proliferation adopted by the United Arab Emirates, which allows the latter’s nuclear program to provide more energy than the Iranian program does now while minimizing the risk it will be used toward more insidious ends. Instead, Iran continues to creep toward the nuclear threshold in defiance of its commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal. There is a rich irony in blaming Iran’s dismal economic state on the US “maximum pressure” campaign designed to prevent a rogue state from acquiring nuclear weapons rather than the regime in Teheran seeking to do so.
Second, providing the corrupt and bungling regime with an IMF loan would be hazardous at worst and ineffective at best. While many of the authors who wrote in favor of easing sanctions belittled the “maximum pressure” campaign, even they cannot ignore the important lesson that it demonstrated: when faced with a decision between the well-being of citizens or radical geopolitical aims and self-interest, the regime unfailingly opts for the latter. Despite the declining economic situation in Iran over the past two years, the regime managed to finance precision missiles for Yemen’s Houthis and Lebanese Hezbollah as its citizens experienced worsening deprivation. That being said, and given that money is fungible, any loan to the Islamic Republic could conceivably under-write the regime’s aggressive behavior.
But even assuming those funds are not used for nefarious purposes, it seems implausible that they would be used effectively given that even the majority of Iranian citizens are now convinced that the primary reason for the country’s economic woes is government mismanagement and corruption rather than sanctions. This sentiment echoes what the speaker of Iran’s parliament said several years ago, that 80% of the country’s economic problems are the result of mismanagement and not sanctions.
Third, the belief that an “offer to send experts to help with technical assistance” would demonstrate “American generosity” and result in the release of US citizens held hostage by Iran demonstrates a painful lack of awareness of the ideological anti-Americanism that defines the regime. Khamenei’s worldview would lead him to suspect any US offer is part of an American conspiracy. He already insinuated that the pandemic was when he parroted accusations that the US created the coronavirus, and then went on to say “I do not know whether it is true. But when there is such an allegation, can a wise man trust you and accept your help offer? … You could be giving medicines to Iran that spread the virus or cause it to remain permanently.” IRGC chief Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami noted similarly, “When Americans say they want to help the Iranian nation under these conditions, it is nothing but demagogy… we do not need their help.” Indeed, the regime’s paranoia even drove it to recently expel a Doctors Without Borders contingent sent to help Iran combat the coronavirus, accusing it of being a “a cover for nonhumanitarian activities.”
So what can be done amidst the coronavirus outbreak to alleviate the suffering of innocent Iranians ruled by a regime that is as domestically repressive as it is dangerous to the region?
Due to its rigorous due diligence process, the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Agreement (SHTA) is the only feasible channel to both provide the Iranian people with needed medical supplies while also ensuring that the assistance is not misused by the cynical regime. Although many have complained that SHTA is slow and difficult to navigate, it was initiated little more than one month ago and will likely be streamlined and recalibrated over time – this process of optimization based on a learning curve is necessary for any organization or channel that seeks to accomplish two goals with considerable friction between them.
The urgency of the situation at hand should not cause us to lose sight of the broader strategic picture. Humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people is a moral necessity at this time, but it would be preposterous to entrust such aid without adequate oversight to the very government which is responsible for murdering thousands of its own citizens as well as tens of thousands more throughout the region.
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin served as Chief of Israel’s Military Intelligence from 2006-2010. He is now the Executive Director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. Ari Heistein is a Research Fellow and Chief of Staff at INSS.