Tehran Can Afford to Fight COVID-19 Even Without Sanctions Relief
The Iranian government is leading an international campaign to pressure the United States to lift sanctions. American and European negotiators of the ill-fated Iran nuclear deal, along with dozens of pressure groups, are lending their support. They claim U.S. sanctions have made it impossible for Tehran to fight COVID-19 and are killing the Iranian people. They are wrong.
To fight and control the virus, the Iranian leadership has to do what most governments around the world are doing: Curb its spread by imposing strict social distancing measures and ramping up the capacity to identify and treat the infected until a vaccine is discovered. Social distancing inflicts substantial economic damage, which most governments are mitigating by sharply increasing their own spending. What the advocates of lifting sanctions fail to understand is that the Iranian government can still afford both the public health measures and the economic relief programs necessary to deal with COVID-19.
The Islamist regime’s officials say they have achieved self-sufficiency and face no shortage of testing kits, medicine, or personal protective equipment; this contradicts numerous messages directed at Western audiences, which assert there are dire shortages. Indeed, Tehran claims it is producing testing kits beyond its needs and is ready to export them. What Tehran lacks in domestic production, it can import from other countries, especially China, the largest producer of personal protective equipment – and a close ally. Reports show that Tehran is doing precisely that. European trade data and remarks by Iran’s public health officials confirm that Tehran does not face any significant trouble importing what it needs.
Yet Tehran has so far refused to implement strict social distancing measures, which, as other countries have demonstrated, requires the shuttering of major parts of the economy. This kind of shutdown is always costly, but the last two weeks have coincided with the country’s traditional two-week Persian New Year holiday, during which economic activity is normally limited. This was the opportunity for Iranian officials to impose quarantines and stay-at-home measures on a mass scale. Despite grave warnings issued by Iran’s public health officials, President Hassan Rouhani resisted such measures, and so millions of Iranian traveled across the country during the New Year holiday. Now Rouhani is trying to reopen key sectors of the economy.