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Commentary | 31 July 2020

Sanctions on Iran put the health of US allies at risk

Image of Hikmet Çetin

Hikmet Çetin |Former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Turkey

International Law Iran Middle East Sanctions Global Security ELN

From its onset, COVID-19 has repeatedly sent us a clear message: “I am deadly. If you do not work together to defeat me, I will keep on killing you.” Unfortunately, humankind has so far not heeded this haunting message.

The sacrifices of health workers, the collaborative efforts of scientists and the millions who protect lives by self-quarantining and social distancing all provide hope and inspiration. But even after months of devastation, there is still no global strategy in place in the fight against COVID-19. Responses have been above all national and therefore ultimately local in character, competitive in nature, and, as expected, not always consistent with one another.

Yet no country has managed to insulate itself, and all countries depend on their neighbours eradicating the virus if they are to be permanently free of it themselves. My neighbour’s good health is my best security. This is absolutely the case for Turkey’s security with regard to Iran, a country among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

The disease continues to take its toll, with no end in sight. And coronavirus has companions, helping its horrifying work: the vindictive politics and the “blame game,” always at hand as escapist tools for politicians on all sides. A glaring example is the ever-increasing American sanctions against Iran. The Iranian people have already been paying a high price under US “maximum pressure” and are now faced with the grim prospects as a second surge occurs partially because of impediments posed by sanctions.

Notwithstanding the real and important differences between the US and Iran, the need to modify American sanctions is imperative to ensure this virus is stopped. For example, as both an ally to the United States and a neighbour to Iran, Turkey should remain able to act as a transport intermediary to ensure that medical supplies that Iran purchases from fellow European countries can enter the country. However, for the volume of trade to make a meaningful difference, the fear that US sanctions cause the business and banking communities must be dealt with.

Whether or not the Iranian government’s response has been adequate, Turkey, other countries in the region including a number of US allies and, indeed the world, need the Iranian people to make a quick recovery. There is no disputing the fact that US sanctions play a role, as even American military intelligence suggests that there is a direct linkage between the sanctions on Iran and the virus spilling out into neighbouring countries such as Qatar.

Luckily, the case for the US to provide sanctions relief to allow Iran’s access to humanitarian resources has been made in detail by the European Leadership Network (ELN) and The Iran Project (TIP) in a joint statement that I and other distinguished colleagues from the US and Europe signed in April. Unfortunately, there has still been no movement on the US side. For example, the US-Swiss humanitarian channel has only now processed its first transaction since a pilot sale at the end of January.

The call here is not for an overall change of US policy toward Iran, even though that would be the most desirable course to take. Rather, it is a call for pragmatic measures that could help ensure that sanctions, which have humanitarian exemptions under US and international law, actually protect the lives of Iranian doctors and nurses as well as the wider public.

There are other reasons besides humanitarian ones for why the US should take the step of providing sanctions relief. As Iran’s neighbour, Turkey knows full well that Iran’s stability and security are essential for the region. This cannot be overemphasised. It is a regional power. Pushing and pressuring Iran into a corner serves no one’s interest and is tantamount to looking for trouble. The Gulf States and Israel also stand to benefit from the COVID-19 crisis in Iran stabilising. To expect Iran, a proud and enduring nation, to fold in the face of sanctions is futile.

Instead, the aim should be to encourage Iran to become a partner in initiatives to deal with the problems of this turbulent region. The nuclear deal that the Trump administration walked away from proved that Tehran was ready to deescalate tensions.  The pandemic compels us to put our usual differences on the back burner.  The US would, therefore, regain some of the international respect it has recently lost if it truly “stands with the Iranian people” during the pandemic.

If the US administration is unwilling to even temporarily suspend sanctions, providing relief through increased clarity and guidance could hopefully lead to a more positive accommodation between the US, Europe, and Iran based on mutual respect. Let diplomacy do the work, not the coronavirus!

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Flickr, Matt Johnson