Before a global pandemic, racial justice protests and a presidential election, 2020 already had a chaotic start with the United States’ assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, on Jan. 3. The assassination spiked already high tensions between the U.S. and Iran to levels not seen for decades, causing many internet users to assume the imminent beginning of World War III.

Obviously, this did not happen. Iran’s only retaliation for the killing was to launch missiles at two American military bases in Iraq, which caused no casualties and seemed almost designed not to do so. After that, tensions largely declined, with no further military action by either side, not even on the anniversary last week, when some form of acknowledgement was expected by many national security experts.

However, it would be a mistake to claim that this quiet means that the two countries are at peace. In fact, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing U.S. sanctions campaign against Iran became all the more cruel and unbefitting of a nation that claims to fight for human rights. We would do well to end it.

First, a little background on the American sanctions program on Iran: While the U.S. has leveled sanctions against Iran nearly consistently since the beginning of the hostage crisis in 1979, the most directly relevant sanctions to the ones we apply today were initially passed as part of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. 

These sanctions banned the import and export of Iranian goods that were more valuable than $100 to the U.S., with the exception of some food and medicine items. These sanctions were passed in order to discourage the development of Iran’s nuclear program, and were heavily relaxed by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which stipulated that these sanctions would be relaxed unless Iran restarted its nuclear program. Repealing these sanctions had a massive positive effect on Iran’s economy and quality of life, with its GDP expanding 13.4% in 2016 and its Human Development Index increasing by 0.01, one of the largest upward movements that year.

However, with the U.S. exit from the JCPOA in 2018, the sanctions that the deal relaxed have been put back into place. Predictably, in the same metrics that proved the increase in Iran’s quality of life after the sanctions were relaxed, Iran began to decline, with GDP decreases of over 6% in both 2018 and 2019 and its HDI decreasing by 0.002 in both years, one of the worst for any country in that time.

And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the weight of the sanctions has been felt even more heavily in Iran. From the beginning, the government’s efforts at economic stimulus were hampered by the fact that they could no longer export oil, denying them half of their previous revenues. Compounding that, a 2019 Human Rights Watch report stated that American sanctions have denied Iran access to medical supplies, something that became an exponentially greater issue in a pandemic. 

Finally, Iran was forced to reopen in May, which was earlier than was medically advisable, because its economy had been so weakened by sanctions that it could not remain locked down. It is not a great leap of logic to suggest that these sanctions and their effects are at least a contributing factor to Iran having one of the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates in the world. In light of this, as well as allegations that re-imposing the sanctions in the first place violated the JCPOA, the United Nations Security Council voted in a 13-2 vote to proclaim that the U.S. had no right to impose the sanctions.

All of this, however, leaves many defenders of the sanctions undeterred. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defends keeping the sanctions, stating how, “We have done remarkable work to deny the regime the resources they need to continue to carry out their terror campaign.” A Wall Street Journal editorial from March states that there is no reason to end the sanctions because, “The regime is responsible for the people’s suffering.” 

However, neither of these arguments actually hold up to greater scrutiny. The Iranian backed paramilitaries of Hezbollah and the al Houthis both remained active in 2020 despite the sanctions, not that blocking either one was ever a great reason to starve a country of medical supplies and crash its economy. Additionally, while no one can say that the Iranian government handled the pandemic well, it is ridiculous to suggest that removing their biggest sources of revenue and obstructing their access to basic medical equipment had nothing to do with their failure. 

A paper by the Journal of Medical Economics corroborates this, stating, “Iran needs to be free from sanctions for battling against this crisis.” There’s a limited amount we here in the U.S. can do to control how the Iranian government manages a pandemic. But we can make sure that they’re not starting with one hand tied behind their back.

So, going back to how this started, we have not fought World War III with Iran. It has been more of a one-sided war on the Iranian people — one that we must end.

Brandon Cowit can be reached at cowitb@umich.edu

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