Politics

Iran attempts to weaken sanctions amid health crisis

By Sina Farhadi

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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a meeting at the national anti-coronavirus headquarters. [Photo via Iranian government information page]

Amid the global health crisis, the Iranian regime has been attempting to undermine and weaken sanctions imposed upon it and portray itself as a victim.

While Iranian officials claim US sanctions have hampered their ability to fight the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Iranian affairs experts refute these allegations, saying they seek to divert attention from the health crisis in Iran.

Since reporting its first cases in mid-February, Iran has struggled to contain the spread of the virus, which as of Wednesday (May 13th) had claimed 6,783 lives.

Iran requested a $5 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to battle coronavirus. But the US, which effectively holds a veto at the IMF, signalled it has no intention of agreeing to give Iran such a credit line.

The US on February 29th said it was ready to help Iran fight the virus if its leaders requested it, but Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said his country would never accept any aid from the US.

Iran has tried to portray the US as an opponent of humanitarian aid, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif launched a global campaign to lift the sanctions.

"The reality is that the incompetence and inability of government officials vis-a-vis the coronavirus outbreak had no relevance to sanctions," Tehran-based political activist Siavash Mirzadeh told Al-Mashareq.

"When airlines dependent on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including Mahan Air, were moving passengers between Iran and China despite health warnings, what role did the sanctions play?" he asked.

It has since been revealed that Mahan Air played a role in the global spread of coronavirus. The US has sanctioned the Iranian airline for its links to the IRGC.

Mahan Air continued to fly while government flight bans were in place, operating hundreds of flights to and from Iran and regional countries between late January and the end of March, the BBC reported May 5th.

Sources told the BBC that dozens of cabin crew were showing symptoms of the virus, and said staff were silenced when they tried to raise concerns about the airline's management of the crisis and provision of safety equipment.

No reduction in military spending

Iranian government officials also displayed an initial lack of transparency over the disease, Mirzadeh said, as it has become apparent "that they were informed at least a month before the official announcement of the coronavirus outbreak".

This delayed the implementation of necessary measures such as social distancing and other restrictions, further exacerbating the outbreak, he said.

The government also assigned the task of managing the crisis "to unqualified soldiers who view the remedy only through the arresting, shutting down and suppression of dissenting voices", he said.

Meanwhile, government officials have been demanding the lifting of sanctions while simultaneously claiming that US sanctions have been defeated, he said.

"If the sanctions have failed, why is there a need to lift them?" he asked.

The Iranian regime claims it has been unable to meet people's needs because of the sanctions, but by the same token has not reduced military spending, Mirzadeh said.

"It was just a few days ago that the IRCG launched a satellite into space," he said. "Millions of dollars have been spent, and the huge financial resources funneled into the IRGC's pockets cannot be concealed under this pretext."

"Instead of these misguided expenses, the IRGC could invest in people's real needs."

No sanctions on food, medicine

Following the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, the Foreign Ministry sought ways "to use this opportunity to find a way towards weakening the sanctions", political expert Karim Samadian told Al-Mashareq.

"It was obvious" the US would oppose Iran's request for an IMF loan, he said.

"Iran's diplomatic apparatus attempted to explain US opposition as preventing aid to Iran for fighting the coronavirus, but we know that is not the case," Samadian said.

The US Treasury Department has repeatedly stated that food, medicine and basic necessities have not been sanctioned.

The issue is that Iran needs cash to advance its regional policies, and it is not willing to adhere to financial mechanisms of commodity exchange, he said.

Two financial channels in Europe -- the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), and another, created by Switzerland -- could be a way for Iran to receive goods and medicine, he said.

INSTEX functions as a clearing house and allows European companies to trade with Iran without exposing themselves to the consequences of US sanctions.

"About a year ago, when it became clear that Europe's INSTEX financial channel would not allow the transfer of cash money to Iran and it in fact could not circumvent US sanctions, security military institutions and close circles to Khamenei became intensely angry," he said.

The mechanism allows for trade without any direct financial flows, thereby enabling Iran to receive goods. But Iranian officials are primarily concerned with accessing cash money, Samadian said.

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