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October 9, 2020

Middle East Roundup: New Sanctions Threaten Medicine, S-400 & a World Treasure Dies

This week, the U.S. levied a new round of financial sector sanctions on Iran that threatens to further stymie the transfer of medicine amid a resurgence of the coronavirus. Also, the Russian ambassador to Iran discussed delivering the S-400 air defense system to Iran and the world lost a master Iranian singer. Please see our breakdown of events and analysis below: 

U.S. Imposes New Round of Financial Sector Sanctions; Threaten Humanitarian Aid 

  • Sanctions Imposed as Iran Contends with Second Wave of Coronavirus Infections 
    • On Oct. 8th, the United States levied fresh sanctions on Iran’s financial sector, targeting 18 Iranian banks under Executive Order 13902 in an effort to further shut Iran out from the global banking system. The U.S. Treasury Department also issued General License L, which exempts the export of agricultural commodities, food, medicine or medical devices to Iran involving parties targeted under EO 13902.
    • Despite previous sanctions exemptions enacted by Congress and the Executive Branch, Iran’s access to medical equipment and PPE has been severely hampered. This new round of sanctions will further reduce Iran’s ability to secure supplies of food and drugs as it struggles to contain a resurgence of the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.
    • These new sanctions come four days after Iran reported its highest daily Covid-19 death toll and its largest single-day rise in infections, as the country imposed a second lockdown of Tehran. 28 out of 31 of Iran’s provinces have been put on “red alert” to reflect the worsening spread. 
    • Iranian Government officials weighed the early re-opening of the country in April against the continued economic impact of locking down Iran’s already sanctions-battered economy. Rapid inflation as a result of the U.S. sanctions regime has forced Iranians into difficult choices, at times choosing between whether or not to have a surgery done or if they should buy meat. According to Iran’s Finance Ministry, Iranians have one-fifth the purchasing power they did three years ago. 
  • Key Takeaways
    • These sanctions couldn’t be imposed at a worst time for the people of Iran. Before they were imposed, Iran’s response to the pandemic was already hampered by limited financial channels for the procurement of humanitarian goods like PPE and medical equipment. And now, the U.S. has applied extraterritorial sanctions to all of Iran’s major banks in their attempt to make Iran’s financial sector “radioactive.” This will shrink the space to procure these needed items even further all while COVID-19 infections surge.  
    • The Trump administration is willfully inducing food insecurity and reducing access to humanitarian aid at a time when Iranians need it most. It is difficult to see as anything but an attempt to use the suffering of Iranian people as a tool to advance seemingly unattainable policy objectives. 
    • At the onset of the pandemic, Iranian leaders made decisions that undermined the severity of the crisis and were slow to react to the unfolding situation. Now, having re-opened the country, they have been forced to shut down Tehran as they scramble to contain its precipitous spread. The government’s choices undoubtedly exacerbated the spread of the disease, but we now know Tehran is hardly unique in that respect. What is unique is that cruel U.S. sanctions crippled their response further and left the Iranian people holding the bag. 

Russia Ambassador to Iran Hints at S-400 Sale After UN Arms Embargo Expires 

  • Comes After U.S. Threats of Secondary Sanctions on Countries Selling Weapons to Iran

    • In remarks to Iranian media, Russia’s Ambassador to Iran Levan Dzhagaryan said on Oct. 3rd that Russia “does not have any problem to deliver the S-400 to Iran.” He noted that Russia already has sold Iran the S-300 missile defense system in 2016.  “We have said since the very first day that there will be no problem for selling weapons to Iran from Oct. 19,” the day the arms embargo on Iran is set to expire, adding that Russia is not concerned with US threats to secondary sanctions.

    • This comes after the U.S. unilaterally claimed on Sept. 21st that all United Nations sanctions on Iran, including the arms embargo, have been restored after the U.S. declared that Iran was in violation of the nuclear deal. However, the international community rebuked these assertions multiple times at the UN Security Council. Most recently, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany released a joint statement stating that the U.S. declaration on the reimposition of UN sanctions is “incapable of having any legal effect” since the U.S. withdrew from the deal in May 2018. 
    • While the potential transfer of the S-400 to Iran is technically allowed under the current arms embargo, it would assuredly antagonize the Trump administration who have spent years attempting to isolate Iran. The S-400 long-range air defense system is highly advanced and could pose a threat to US-built aircraft flown by the United States and its regional allies in case of conflict with Iran.
  • Key Takeaways
    • While the Russian Ambassador’s comment should not be taken lightly, they should be taken with a grain of salt. Past weapons transfer between Iran and Russia have notoriously taken years, specifically the sale of the S-300, which took decades. Moreover, Iran has not publicly stated that it desires the S-400, but instead unveiled a new air defense system that they have said is sufficient for their needs, along with the S-300. 
    • Moreover, there is very little reason to assume that on Oct. 19th, Iran will be able to instantly purchase weapons from Russia or other potential sellers. As mentioned above, Iran has a liquidity issue given the state of its economy. Moreover, the U.S. retains powerful unilateral measures regardless of the status of UN questions, which can deter future transactions if used deftly. A priority forIran would likely be its aging air force; but it would take over $100 billion to revamp Iran’s aging air force, money it doesn’t have. 
    • Instead, Iran will more likely look to buy components to bolster its own domestic defense production industry and look to update their own weapon systems with niche capabilities. But more fundamentally, Iran’s defense strategy, which depends on strategic depth in surrounding countries and its ballistic missile programs, would likely not be dramatically overhauled following the expiration of the UN embargo. Instead, look for public negotiations between Iran and sellers to antagonize the U.S. but stop short of jeopardizing potential nuclear or regional negotiations while gradually bolstering their defense systems in the long term. 

The World Loses a Gifted Voice and Maestro of Iranian Classical Music 

  • On Thursday, Oct. 8th, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the undisputed master of Persian traditional singing, died at 80 years old after his long battle with cancer. He was perhaps Iran’s most diverse and prolific singer of all time and was recognized globally for his voice after winning the UNESCO Mozart Medal in 2006 and being nominated for two Grammys.

  • He was also a vocal critic of the Iranian government’s crackdown on the 2009 Green movement and sent a formal letter to the government’s broadcast service to stop playing his music. As a result, they banned him from holding concerts or public performances. Iranians gathered in the thousands at the hospital on the night of his death and today at his funeral. He will be sorely missed. For a glimpse of his music, please see an appearance he made on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert in 2013. Our statement on his death is here as well.  

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