Iran is buckling under the weight of one of the worst outbreaks in the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought the world to a halt. Iran’s domestic mishandling of the virus is compounded dramatically by international sanctions leveraged by the United States. The United States should temporarily suspend its sanctions on Iran in light of the current health crisis — not just because it is the humanitarian thing to do, but because it serves the United States’ foreign policy interests.
First, a temporary suspension of sanctions is a move that will serve the United States well in future negotiations with Iran. From Iran’s point of view, there is little use in negotiating with a country that is dogmatically inflexible. Under the Trump administration, the United States has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, ratcheted up sanctions, and gone to the brink of hot conflict. As a result, Iran has dug in on its nuclear development, foreign military adventurism, and domestic repression.
But historically when the United States has shown interest in diplomatic engagement, Iran has been receptive. Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, was the first Iranian head of state to speak with an American president. A temporary suspension of sanctions would be a dramatically-felt goodwill gesture that would demonstrate there is still room for talks between Iran and the United States, a debt to be repaid later in Iranian flexibility.
Second, American cooperation on sanctions relief would keep Iran from being pushed further into the arms of the United States’ strategic rivals, China and Russia. Both nations, which are signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, have called on the international community to suspend sanctions on Iran during the COVID-19 crisis. China has donated medical equipment to Iran, a move that garnered the praise of Iranian military leadership.
The economic isolation that sanctions have brought on Iran has primed Tehran to rely on China and Russia. In the optimism surrounding the 2015 nuclear deal, other countries’ companies were eager to enter the Iranian market. But the American withdrawal and the resumption of sanctions have cemented China and Russia’s stranglehold on the Iranian economy. Economic leverage has turned to military cooperation. The countries conducted joint naval exercises near the Strait of Hormuz last December. A majority of Iranians view China and Russia favorably, while only 13 percent of Iranians view the United States favorably. A temporary suspension of American sanctions would poke a hole in the anti-Western rhetoric that makes China and Russia successful in Iran.
Third, a U.S. suspension of sanctions would concretely demonstrate the Trump administration’s latest rhetorical push — that the United States cares about the people of Iran. American officials, including Trump, have taken to Twitter to pledge their support for the Iranian people in Farsi. The Trump administration has yet to prove that there is any policy behind this initiative. This would be a good place to start.
One of the greatest threats to the Iranian regime is the domestic perception of the government as incompetent and opaque. In a poll last fall, Iranians attributed their economic difficulties more to domestic misconduct than international sanctions regimes. The Iranian government can and has allocated blame to the United States for COVID-19 as sanctions persist. But once American sanctions are lifted the blame squarely falls on Iran’s government, which has gone as far as turning away aid from Doctors Without Borders. Alignment between the Iranian people and the United States during COVID-19 only highlights the regime’s ineptitude to the United States’ benefit.
Finally, the United States should temporarily suspend international sanctions because it is the kind of collaborative international leadership urgently needed during this global health crisis. American leadership, particularly in the Middle East, is more in doubt than ever before. The world is calling on the United States to do the right thing. Temporarily easing sanctions in the name of humanitarianism could go a long way to repairing the United States’ battered reputation in the international arena.
The United States claims that its sanctions regime does not affect sales of humanitarian goods like medical equipment. But sanctions that target international transfers cause sales of medical equipment to incur fines. Banks around the world refuse to handle these transactions for fear of repercussions. This financial environment creates a grim outlook for Iran’s population under COVID-19.
The United States has the rarest of chances in diplomacy — a goodwill gesture with an end date. The United States must trade the short-term satisfaction of sanctions for the long-term success of its policy in Iran and the defeat of COVID-19.
Lucille Greer is a Schwarzman Fellow at the Wilson Center who researches great power politics between China and the United States in the Middle East.