How can the US support Iran’s response to the coronavirus and bolster diplomacy?

As Tehran is scrambling to contain the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Iran, Mark Fitzpatrick explains why the United States should facilitate the humanitarian assistance Iran needs to address its current public health crisis.

The United States’ policy toward Iran is stuck in a rut. Government officials know well that the maximum pressure campaign has failed in its stated objective to effect positive change in Iranian behaviour. The changes have all been in the opposite direction. Iran is expanding its nuclear programme, it continues to develop long-range ballistic missiles and its proxy forces are again hitting US targets, like the 11 March rocket attack on Iraq’s Camp Taji military base that killed two US troops and a British soldier.

Yet President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other political appointees are loath to admit failure. They insist, and may even believe, that just a little more sustained pressure will finally crack the Iranian egg and create economic collapse. Official policy is not to advocate regime change, but the administration’s abettors in the right-wing think tank community and Fox News have no such compunctions. They dream of a miraculous democratic uprising, a takeover by the cult-like Mujahedin-e-Khalq and even restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty. What they do not seem to understand is that if economic stress does lead to regime change in Iran, it is far more likely to be a change for the worse through a coup at the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

There is a far better policy option, of course. US officials who say that Iran only responds to pressure and the threat of force are wrong. They surely must know that pressure works best when it is combined with incentives. Without offering some semblance of a win-win solution, the current pressure campaign will likely lead to escalation ending in war. Both Iran and the Trump administration need an off-ramp as an alternative to pursuing their worst instincts.

Alternatives to ‘maximum pressure’

The public health crisis in both countries caused by the coronavirus offers a possibility for US officials to seek such an off-ramp. The US made a wise move last month when it approved a Swiss financial channel for humanitarian trade. Administration officials insist that such transactions have always been exempt from sanctions, but without reliable access to financial services it is difficult to conduct international trade of any sort. Well-sourced studies attest to drug shortages and medical emergencies in Iran being exacerbated by Trump’s policies.

The Swiss channel was a good start and demonstrated diplomatic finesse by not conditioning it on an immediate quid pro quo. When dealing with untrusting enemies, linkages can work better when they are implicit. In agreeing to the Swiss channel, the US did call on Iran to make its own humanitarian gesture by releasing innocent American hostages including Siamak and Baquer Namazi, now in their fourth year of unconscionable detention. But it was not an explicit condition. In December, Iran said that it was ready for more prisoner swaps like the one releasing Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang. Although the 3 January assassination of Qasem Soleimani made all further diplomatic endeavours much more fraught, talks are ongoing with regards to another swap.

The US could hasten prisoner releases by expanding humanitarian financial channels with Iran that can cover more than just trade from Switzerland. The obvious next step is to approve the barter payment mechanism put in place in January 2019 by the European Union that is now supported financially by nine European states. The Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) has yet to facilitate a single trade, however, in part because the US has warned that any businesses using the channel may be subject to secondary sanctions. Scholars associated with the London-based European Leadership Network think tank advocate that ‘INSTEX can be used to ensure Iran remains able to make payments to European suppliers and receive speedy and reliable deliveries of the equipment necessary to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.’

More recently, the administration’s rhetoric toward INSTEX has been more neutral. At a 28 February event sponsored by Al-Monitor, US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, acknowledged that there is no demand in European business to evade US sanctions, and that INSTEX is more of a diplomatic than an economic issue. He said Iran has not yet been able to set up a mirror channel with INSTEX that meets the same standard for diligence offered by the Swiss channel.

The real reason the US is not approving INSTEX seems to be that it is being kept for negotiation leverage. In a 10 March press statement, Pompeo said ‘Any nation considering whether to provide Iran with humanitarian assistance because of COVID-19 should seek a reciprocal humanitarian gesture by the regime: release all wrongly detained dual and foreign national citizens.’

The impact of the coronavirus on Iran

The coronavirus has hit Iran hard, with more dire impact than all US sanctions to date. As of 16 March, 853 people have died from the virus in Iran. On 12 March, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted an urgent appeal for assistance, saying efforts by Iranian care personnel are ‘stymied by vast shortages caused by restrictions on our people’s access to medicine/equipment’. That day, Iran also made an unprecedented request for a US$5 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to alleviate the impact of the coronavirus.

Rather than help Iran address its public health crisis, some American hardliners appear to believe that the coronavirus could accelerate the impact of US sanctions in pushing Iran toward regime change. This idea fails the laugh test. With Iranian citizens desperate to avoid crowds that could spread the virus, how would they come together in masses in the street to bring down the government? And however pressed the regime is economically, it continues its domestic monopoly on instruments of force.

The Trump administration says it has already offered to help Iran with humanitarian assistance and medical supplies. As a proud nation, however, Iran does not want a hand-out from Soleimani’s killer. What it wants is the kind of IMF assistance accorded to all nations in trouble and to be able to purchase the medical supplies it needs. As a generous nation, the US should understand and facilitate this.


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