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March 19, 2020

Coronavirus in Iran: Calls to Ease Sanctions Grow & Virus Batters Iran’s Economy

After a little less than a month after the spread of Coronavirus in Qom, the virus continues to decimate Iran. Below is an update of events and how U.S. policy is affecting the crisis:

Status of the Outbreak

  • As of March 19th, the official death toll in Iran stands at 1,284 and those infected at 18,407. The virus has currently affected almost all of Iran’s provinces and is ravaging throughout the country.
  • With the epidemic showing no sign of abating, the Iranian authorities chose to impose a lockdown on the key religious sites, among them the highly revered shrines of Hazrat Masoumeh and Imam Reza in the conservative cities of Qom and Mashhad, respectively. The closures prompted protests at both sites , as demonstrators attempted to force their way into each shrine and instigators lambasted the government’s policies as they attempt to combat the virus.
  • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in an interview on March 15 that “n o such thing as quarantine exists in Iran and no local governors are allowed to make decisions about lockdowns.” This comes after a provincial governor banned the arrival and departure of vehicles into and out of Khuzestan. Rouhani, in responding to rumors about a possible quarantine in Tehran, said “there is no such thing, not today, not during the New Year holidays, not before or after that.”
  • After many Iranians refused to follow official guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus, the armed forces on March 13 took further action and said, beginning March 14, they would clear streets and shops and monitor all citizens online and, if necessary, in person. The campaign is being led by a military commission set up on orders from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, chief of staff of the armed forces Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri said on state television.
  • Conflicting messages about the government’s response to the crisis come after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei authorized the military to take a more engaged role in the crisis, promoting infighting between the armed forces and Rouhani’s government.
  • Amidst a growing number of prominent government officials affected by the virus, Brigadier General Nasser Shabani, a commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, died from the Covid-19 coronavirus on March 13, according to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency. The commander is one of many leading Iranian political, religious and military figures who have been infected with or died from Covid-19.

Virus Batters Iran’s Already Ailing Economy

  • Despite the government’s attempt to downplay the crisis, Iran’s economy has suffered tremendously. With the coronavirus shutting down hotels, restaurants, schools and other public institutions, up to two million jobs might be lost, said Sadegh Alhosseini, an independent economist in Tehran.
  • Carmaker Iran Khodro—a national icon whose output was already slashed by U.S. sanctions—is halting production to counter the spread of the coronavirus among its employees, Iranian media reported on March 12. The Iranian Rial, already heavily devalued as a result of U.S. sanctions, fell further over the last three weeks, bottoming out at 15,550 rial/$ as of March 13th.
  • For the first time since 1962 Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for emergency funding to help it fight the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and to stave off a deepening economic crisis. In a tweet on March 12, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran’s Central Bank has requested immediate access to funding from IMF for countries affected by coronavirus. This comes after the IMF’s Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva announced that the international body was making $50 Billion available to help address the coronavirus global crisis.
  • Questions remain if the IMF will be allowed to process the request given the Trump administration’s considerable sway of the institution and the threat of secondary sanctions. However, experts have said there is both precedent and cause for Iran to be granted the loan, given the nature of the request and the dire circumstances.

Sanctions Continue to Exacerbate the Crisis; Calls to Ease Sanctions Grow

  • In concert with the Iranian government’s mismanaged response, U.S. sanctions continue to batter Iran’s economy and have made the crisis worse. While the Trump administration is technically correct when it notes exemptions for humanitarian trade, in practice those exemptions have often been insufficient to allow for the flow of medicine and medical devices. And, more broadly, efforts to collapse the Iranian economy amid a pandemic will cause increased suffering for the average Iranian fighting to survive.
  • A Human Rights Watch report stated in October 2019 that, “while the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime … in practice these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies,” to sell humanitarian good to Iran, a consequence which “has been to deny Iranians access to essential medicines and to impair their right to health.”
  • According to Dr. Minoo Mohraz , a prominent specialist in infectious diseases in Iran, the country’s medical industry has been stymied in detecting coronavirus cases due to a lack of diagnostic test kits. She also cited that European companies are reluctant to sell equipment to Iran for fear of secondary sanctions, forcing the World Health Organization to send kits instead.
  • Easing the current regime of sanctions during this crisis would not be without precedent. Negar Mortazavi highlights that “in 2004, when a devastating earthquake killed thousands of people in the city of Bam in Iran, then-President George Bush lifted sanctions for a limited period so that international aid could get into the country. A similar situation happened in 2012, when an earthquake hit northern Iran. At that time, President Obama suspended sanctions for a few months to allow aid to be sent in.”
  • According to Relief International, one of the only U.S. based NGOs that facilitates humanitarian aid to Iran, “one of the problems for international aid has been to clarify the legal issues related to sanctions to ensure that medical supplies and medicines can be brought into Iran. This slowed down the health response in the first weeks of the outbreak.”
  • Congresswoman Rep. Ilhan Omar recently highlighted these concerns, stating in a tweet last week: “We need to suspend these sanctions before more lives are lost.”

How Can I Help?

  • Relief International has launched a campaign to assist in the response to the Coronavirus in Iran, and will be providing face masks, sanitizer, test kits and treatment to affected individuals. Relief International has a license to conduct relief work in Iran and accepts contributions from Americans.
  • Moms Against Poverty has rolled out a campaign to deliver relief to address the Coronavirus crisis, and will be providing masks, surgical gloves, disinfectant wipes, alcohol wipes, and hand sanitizers to medical clinics and hospitals serving the vulnerable communities, as well as food and other basic necessities to children and families affected. They have a permit to engage in relief efforts and are accepting donations to support their work.
  • The Child Foundation is collecting donations to provide medical supplies for healthcare workers and communities in Afghanistan and Iran. They plan to shift their resources as needed based on which governments are accepting medical equipment and which communities are in most need.

In addition, if you would like more information on the recent Travel Ban affecting those entering the United States from Iran, please see our FAQ on the Travel Ban.

You may find our previous coronavirus updates here:

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