FRANCE — This week, the leading coalition of Iranian democratic activists, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) released a detailed report. It concerned the various wealthy institutions that are controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The report outlined the Iranian regime’s access to hundreds of billions of dollars in untapped funds. These funds that could be used to address Iran’s out-of-control COVID-19 crisis.
Additionally, the reports clarifies some of the essential reasons why the theocratic dictatorship should not gain relief from economic sanctions, even under the current conditions.
The relevant information is vitally important. Many Western policymakers have shown sensitivity to the regime’s efforts to exploit the coronavirus pandemic. They argue for the release of frozen assets and the restoration of Iran’s access to foreign markets. The Trump administration faces a growing chorus of appeals on this issue from within America’s liberal political circles and some international interlocutors.
Chances of the administration yielding to calls for a return to conciliation and appeasement remain slim.
As long as those liberal voices remain part of the Western policy landscape, Iran will have insufficient incentive to bow to foreign pressure. This remains a dangerous situation, both global stability and for the Iranian people themselves. Iran’s coronavirus outbreak greatly amplifies this danger, creating a situation that leaves countless Iranians fighting for their lives, in absence of support from their own government.
Earlier in April, a member of the Iranian Health Ministry task force dealing with the outbreak stated that the number of cases in the Islamic Republic has most likely risen to about half a million. The NCRI, on the other hand, estimates that the total number of infections can already be measured in the millions. They report that more than 30,000 COVID-19 cases have been fatal.
The latter figure comes in at six times higher than the regime’s official estimates. But it remains much more consistent with the descriptions of an overwhelmed healthcare system coming from Iranian doctors and nurses.
As the nation hurtled toward that situation, regime authorities seemed considerably more committed to protecting their own narrative of the outbreak than preventing the spread of the virus.
Iran protects its COVID-19 narrative
On February 19, when officials first acknowledged that COVID-19 was claiming lives in the Islamic Republic, state media described fears of an epidemic as a result of “psychological warfare” waged by foreign adversaries.
Two days later, the regime-held its parliamentary elections and urged Iranians of every demographic and health condition to turn out and vote in largely uncontested races. As in past years, the prospective turnout was an important element of the regime’s strategy for fostering an appearance of legitimacy.
The same held true for participation in celebrations earlier that month of the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.
Documents recently obtained by the NCRI indicate that while the regime was doing all of this, coronavirus had already begun spreading across the country. The first round of positive cases was recorded in January but never publicly acknowledged.
Signs came in the form of the arrest of doctors, nurses, and ordinary citizens who dared to reveal true information about an epidemic quickly spiraling out of control. Meanwhile, their enforced silence allowed regime authorities to hold public scrutiny in check while hoarding and misappropriating personal protective equipment and other medical necessities.
Reports indicate that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sold large quantities of those resources on the black market or simply gave them away to Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq.
Sanctions on the regime do not prevent Iran from importing medicine and other humanitarian goods.
In fact, as the coronavirus outbreak began to take hold in Iran, the White House actually promoted a Swiss payment channel for exactly these kinds of transactions.
A joint venture of Britain, France, and Germany set up a separate payment mechanicm last year to facilitate permissible trade with Iranian entities. By this move, these countries intended to help keep the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in place despite the US withdrawal.
Tehran’s rhetoric on this issue clearly indicates the regime’s total disregard for anything falling short of the full removal of foreign economic and diplomatic pressure. That attitude has been heavily underscored in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. Iranian officials rejected offers of medical aid from the US and from Doctors Without Borders. It goes without saying that if the mullahs lacked the resources to help their people but sincerely wanted to do so, then they would have accepted these offers enthusiastically.
The NCRI continues to demonstrate that no shortage of available resources exists.
Tehran could have proudly rejected the foreign aid and still helped its people. But doing so would rob the regime of its greatest opportunity to play the victim.
Unfortunately for the mullahs, this argument evaporates anyway. It does so once it becomes clear that their refusal to finance public health hasn’t stopped them from continuing to spend money on institutions dedicated to repressing dissent, bolstering the regime’s militancy, and deepening its footprint on the surrounding region.
The world no doubt obtained a bit of that clarity on Wednesday. Reports indicated that despite Iran’s supposed hardships in obtaining humanitarian goods, the IRGC had managed to build a new type of two-stage rocket, In addition, it had prepared a new launch site and finally succeed in placing a military satellite in low Earth orbit.
Undoubtedly this proved an expensive endeavor. But Iran pursued at a time when the coronavirus pandemic was well underway.
If Tehran is willing to pour its existing resources into these sorts of activities, how could any Western policymakers believe that the regime would behave differently in the presence of unfrozen assets and new sources of foreign capital? How could anyone expect Iran to spend money on the public good when it has shown no interest in doing so before now?