JOHN TULLOH. Uncle Sam makes it an unhappy Persian new year in Iran.

Mar 23, 2020

One can only surmise at the quiet satisfaction among members of the Trump administration at the current distress of Iran regarding the coronavirus sweeping the country.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo marked the start of the Persian new year, normally a time of renewal, by imposing even more sanctions under the US’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. Officially they are aimed at forcing Iran to limit its nuclear, missile and regional activities. This amounts to cutting off its oil exports which would mean bankruptcy. The hidden motive is to bring the ayatollahs to their knees. Trump needs to be reminded of the consequences when Washington decided in 2003 to enforce new leadership on Iran’s neighbour, Iraq. Some of the volatile ingredients are there to happen again if Iran unravels and with a heavily infected populace.

Iran as a bogeyman has been a peculiar obsession of Washington since the Islamic revolution in 1979 despite its great love affair before then with the Shah, his oil wealth and his insatiable appetite for weapons, mainly American. John Bolton, the hawkish former US national security advisor, said only this month that now was an opportunity to go to war with Iran. This was at a time when Iran had already suffered more than 1000 deaths from the virus, thousands more had been infected and the disease was out of control in a country desperately short of medical supplies due to American sanctions.

Deutsche Welle reported last week that researchers at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran had created a computer simulator to analyse scenarios. One was that infections would not peak until late May. The death toll could be as high as 3.5 million, they claimed, or more than four percent of Iran’s population.

Washington has indicated it might make an exception of humanitarian aid, but pharmaceutical companies are afraid to act because they have been punished previously for trading with Tehran. It is the same with banks when asked to transfer funds. Even George W.Bush, no friend of Iran (part of his ‘Axis of Evil’), suspended sanctions to allow in humanitarian supplies following a 2003 earthquake which killed 26,000 Iranians. US planes and personnel were deployed then to help.

The Iranian foreign minister called the current sanctions ‘medical terrorism’. The fear is that currently more than 100,000 Iranians may be infected and nothing can be done about it because Tehran does not have the means to do so due to those sanctions. Washington has ignored pleas from China and Russia and even reportedly Britain to do the right thing. There have been reports the US might do so if Iran releases three or four Americans who were imprisoned there.

If so, there is something distasteful about haggling over the freedom for three or four jailed people when 80,000,000 million people are living in fear of the silent killer stalking their land and in a state of helplessness when help is at hand. One would expect that Trump, a reported germaphobe, of all people would empathise, especially now that the virus is on his very doorstep, much to his political discomfort.

But Washington could well be more interested in watching how the current political infighting in Iran plays out. The country’s dual power structure is anything but unified even in the face of such a crisis. The New York Times says Iran’s paramount religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with the backing of the religious hardliners and the military, is locked in a power struggle with the civilian government of President Hassan Rouhani about how to deal with it. The result has been a trail of contradictory announcements and a confused and angry populace wondering who’s in charge of the unfolding calamity.

I spoke to a 31-year-old electronics engineer, Meisam, who lives in Tehran. The coronavirus has hit his family. His mother’s longtime driver died of it. His widow and their daughter have it. Meisam blames US sanctions. He dislikes the ruling ayatollahs. He calls Trump ‘ a dictator and a terrorist’. He cannot understand the US hostility to Iran when Saudi Arabian money, as he sees it, underwrites terrorist organisations like ISIS. He would like to see sanctions suspended for three months if only to allow Iranians to import the necessary medical supplies free of US interference.

Once upon a time, the US was renowned for the generosity of its aid to foreign countries in crisis. Remember the symbol of the clasped Stars and Stripes hands of helping others in time of need. Today Trump is very suspicious of doing this. For example, his 2021 budget proposes decreasing the UN regular budget by 34% and eliminating funding to some relief programs altogether. It is in part a reflection of his attitude to the rest of the world about getting anything from Uncle Sam without first earning it.

The Washington Post says the Trump sanctions campaign has resulted in little tangible benefit to the US, but at the same time the costs of U.S. policy are growing. If the US can talk to the Sunni Taliban, why can’t they genuinely reach out to the the Shiite ayatollahs? It might just persuade the Iranians to swallow some of their bluster and antagonism towards the Great Satan.

FOOTNOTE. Washington has always underestimated the traditional self-reliance of Iranians and their refusal to be intimidated by outsiders or be bossed around by them. If anything, says Meisam, the sanctions have made Iranians even more self-sufficient and he takes some satisfaction from that. But at the same time they are unacceptable when nurses are forced to wear plastic disposable tablecloths because protective clothing is not available, never mind the many other vital medical products which are blocked by the sanctions. ‘They are fighting the virus with almost bare hands’, he said. Despite the lurking human catastrophe in Iran, shops are operating normally with no frenzied rush to grab whatever is there. Australians, take note.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.

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