ODVV interview: Depriving Iran of assistance in the fight against COVID-19 is highly risky

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Publish Date : 05/26/2020 18:52
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A policy of depriving Iran of assistance in the fight against COVID-19 when neither a treatment nor a cure or vaccine exist – and when USA leads the world in outbreaks and spread – seems highly risky if not plainly wrong in terms of American self-interest.

The international community is gripped with the fear of an unprecedented health crisis the like of which has not been seen since the Second World War. The novel coronavirus is wrecking lives in some 190 countries and territories and has thus far caused nearly 309,000 deaths. The economic disruption triggered by the pandemic is believed to be the largest global recession since the Great Depression of 1930s.


Extensive cancellation or deferral of sporting, cultural, religious and political events; crisis of legitimacy plaguing political establishments across the world; increased vulnerability of natural ecosystems; debilitating stagnation of international tourism industry; widespread closure of schools and universities and the inertia of global education affecting over 1.7 billion learners, and a spike in mental health crises and domestic violence are some of the repercussions of the historic pandemic which the World Health Organization has warned may never go away and that the populations worldwide may have to learn to live with it.


For Iran, which is one of the worst-hit countries by the disease, coping with the health emergency has been doubly difficult under the brunt of the draining US sanctions. Importing much-needed medicine and medical equipment to use in the fight against COVID-19 has been one of the daunting tasks the Islamic Republic has been encountering while the draconian sanctions were never eased or at least temporarily lifted on humanitarian grounds.


Iranian authorities say their crackdown on the spiraling coronavirus outbreak is hampered by the US sanctions and the unwillingness of international manufacturers to sell Iran medicine and paraphernalia such as protective gears and ventilators. Global public figures, UN officials and noted academicians have urged the United States to tone down its restrictions against Iran in these taxing days. The calls have mostly fallen on deaf ears.


John Packer is an associate professor of law and Director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC) at the University of Ottawa, Canada. In 2018, he was appointed the Inaugural Neuberger-Jesin Professor of International Conflict Resolution. He has been awarded fellowships by the University of Cambridge and Harvard University and held positions at the University of Essex and the Fletcher School, Tufts University. Prof. Packer has collaborated with international organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Labour Organisation, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.


Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has arranged an interview with Prof. Packer to discuss the US sanctions against Iran, their impact on Iran’s fight against the coronavirus crisis and the future of Iran-US relations. The following is the text of the interview.


Q: In the recent weeks, Iranian authorities have been constantly warning against the detrimental impacts of the US sanctions against Iran on the Islamic Republic’s ability to combat the coronavirus outbreak, saying that medical equipment and medicine cannot be delivered to Iranian people as a result of the restrictions. Do you see the readiness in the Trump administration to mitigate the economic pressure in these critical times on humanitarian grounds?
A: The Trump administration has been clear and unwavering in its position, including to make no accommodation for the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, this position is consistent with the evident disposition in favor of a collapse of the political regime in Iran. Despite some rhetoric, including an asserted “moral responsibility” to assist, if asked, humanitarianism is not in the spirit of the Trump administration as it not only maintains but has recently tightened its policy of “maximum pressure.”


Q: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook have claimed on different occasions that food, medicine and medical equipment are not subject to the US sanctions. This is while Iranian businessmen and government officials say in practice, importing these goods involve huge complexities. What is the reason for this contradiction? For example, are the US-based medical companies able to smoothly export their products to Iran if they wish?
A: I do not know the technicalities of the US sanctions against Iran, but the effects are apparent. Notably, while I understand that pharmaceuticals and medical equipment are not prohibited per se from export to Iran, in fact is it difficult to do so because of practical and financial obstacles, in particular a prohibition on use of the international payments or transactions systems. This fact and its effects are no doubt known to the Trump administration – rendering their claims essentially disingenuous. The reason for this can only be deduced from their principal position and objective, [which is] the collapse of the political regime in Iran. There is no real contradiction in this; the position and actions are consistent.


Q: Some observers say if the United States takes action to ease sanctions to facilitate Iran’s fight against the coronavirus, this will be perceived as a goodwill gesture in Iran, and this can lay the groundwork for new openings in the muddled Iran-US relations, which have been on a downward spiral after the US withdrawal from the Iran deal in May 2018. What’s your take on that?
A: I think it is important to distinguish a few matters entwined in this question. First, I believe the Trump administration, and the US government more broadly as well as the American people and many others beside, distinguishes between the “regime,” i.e. the present authorities in Iran, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the Iran people or public; the former are more than disliked, and the latter – the people – are the subjects of some expressed affinity or, at least, sympathy. I do not believe that the Trump administration is interested in expressing, much less demonstrating, goodwill towards the political regime or authorities – although it might benefit from doing so vis-à-vis the people. That is easier said than done, i.e. without support for or towards the people being manipulated by or ultimately benefiting the political regime. Indeed, some argue that such “generosity” on the part of the USA would be wrong-headed because it would only perpetuate the Iranian regime which, they argue, is responsible for harming the people. Second, leaving aside the effects inside Iran, the coronavirus pandemic is a global threat currently wreaking havoc in the USA – such that the fight against COVID-19 should not be presented in such terms of “we” versus “they” because everyone shares an interest – in particular, the USA has an interest – in controlling the virus everywhere, at least until a vaccine may be found and benefit, first, Americans. A policy of depriving Iran of assistance in the fight against COVID-19 when neither a treatment nor a cure or vaccine exist – and when USA leads the world in outbreaks and spread – seems highly risky if not plainly wrong in terms of American self-interest. Third, the question implies some desire, or desirability, for “new openings” presumably to improve US-Iran relations, with the existing regime and administration. But, as noted earlier, this does not accord with the basic position or aim of the Trump administration.


Q: The coronavirus pandemic is a global health crisis, and affects people regardless of their geographical and national backgrounds. It appears that helping Iran, one of the epicenters of the disease, is a moral imperative. Do you think international organizations, such as the United Nations, have a responsibility to pressure the United States into suspending its punitive measures against Iran while this health emergency is in full swing?
A: From the perspective of humanism and the great religions and principal philosophies of the world, yes, the shared threat and risks posed by the coronavirus give rise, in my opinion, to a moral imperative of active international cooperation. Of course, inter-governmental organizations like the United Nations are not independent entities with self-made mandates or means; rather, they derive from and are dependent upon the states which create them, mandate their scopes of responsibilities and fund their activities. Simply, the UN serves, and is accountable to, member states, not least the principal financial contributors and the members of the Security Council, especially the P5. Certainly, the international civil servants and the bodies and organs of the UN, in fulfilling their mandates, may identify contradictions and even violations of principles, undertakings and obligations – as well as draw attention to the effects or consequences of decisions, policies and practices. But, under the existing international system, it is not really for the UN or similar intergovernmental organizations, nor their Secretaries-General, to “pressure” the very States, i.e. governments, on which they depend, including literally for their election and appointment and pay and benefits. This is arguably a shortcoming of the prevailing global system, insofar as it leaves the politics of international relations in a predominant position and overarching even when a global humanitarian crisis exists as with coronavirus. As such, there is considerable frustration with the performance of IGOs and growing calls for substantial reform.


Q: On March 31, the German Federal Foreign Office announced that the special-purpose vehicle for trade with Iran, INSTEX, has completed its first transaction, and a consignment of medical goods were exported to the country by the trio of Britain, France and Germany via this barter system. Are you optimistic that INSTEX can function more efficiently in the future than in the preceding year, and enable substantial trade between Iran and Europe? Is it reasonable to count on this trade mechanism as a savior of the JCPOA?
A: I do not know the details of INSTEX or how it is underwritten. But it strikes me that a barter system essentially is a throwback some hundreds of years and loses much of the attraction and nimbleness of a modern financial system for trade in goods and services. For example, I don’t know how well INSTEX would work for trade in small but possibly crucial items or amounts. This aside, I believe the JCPOA ultimately depends upon broad confidence with demonstrated respect over time. It strikes me that Iran has an enormous interest in this and should do everything possible to ensure fullest integrity and be seen to be acting with integrity; breaches will undermine most any other state’s readiness to trade – especially, to make the effort to overcome the obstacles to trade. I think INSTEX may help buy some time and protect against social and economic collapse, but more will be needed in the long-term or even medium-term.


Q: Members of the US Congress, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a special rapporteur on the right to food and hundreds of academics and university professors from across the world have called on the US government to suspend the grueling economic sanctions against Iran. Do you think such demands will change anything in the determination of the Trump administration in preserving the architecture of the sanctions?
A: I am not sure whether the Trump administration will be moved, nor perhaps even cares. The letter and calls to which you refer are, in the first place, expressions of sincere belief by the signatories and convey a message also to the people of Iran and to the world, in accordance with some universal principles, like humanitarianism, and a particular vision for the world. Such communications help to sharpen the differences in positions, which might contribute to others who are outside or competing with the Trump administration to reflect upon better positions and also help some other governments and the amorphous international community to coalesce around an alternative approach. So, there are reasons for and audiences to the letter and calls well beyond the Trump administration, as principal addressee.


Q: The US sanctions against Iran are unilateral and are not backed by the UN Security Council. This means they are not binding for other nations. Despite this, international banks are extremely worried that by facilitating transactions pertaining to humanitarian trade with Iran, they might run foul of the US measures. What is behind this extra cautiousness international banks and companies are exhibiting and the fears holding them back from doing business with Iran?
A: We may no longer be living in a unipolar world where the USA could in effect dictate, but it remains amongst the most powerful states in the world with far-reaching effects of its policies, laws and even culture. It is also a huge and relatively open market wherein almost every major company of the world is active in one form or another. As such, there exist a range of interests subject to risks for banks and companies – even foreign or international ones – doing business with or in Iran or merely facilitating transactions, which might give rise to actions against them at least affecting their US-based businesses or related activities. The costs and risks of this serve as a serious constraint.


Q: From a conflict resolution perspective, which you specialize in, how is it possible to eliminate the longstanding hostilities between Iran and the United States, as a result of which the economic suffering of Iranian people can come to an end and they experience more comfortable livelihoods?
A: That is a huge question – not susceptible to a neat or short answer, without being trite. Of course, it – elimination of longstanding hostilities – requires making and building peace both between the states, i.e. governments, and the people. This is a complex and time-consuming endeavor. But it would start with some renewed relations at some level or “entry point”, probably accompanied by some fundamental changes in positions on both sides, including arguably some aspects of character, that could be seen as generating some minimum confidence on which to build. This might well benefit from an intermediary since the current bilateral relationship appears overwhelmingly negative and stuck – incapable of the parties liberating themselves from the predicament, if that is what it is – or may be perceived as being. Perhaps a fundamental change of circumstance could trigger movement in the relationship, for example a yet worsening global crisis that would diminish capacities to persist with the hostilities and push towards some improved relations, but that is not a scenario anyone would wish for, both because of the severe risks of crisis per se and of things getting worse in the circumstances, for example, chaotic. Another possibility would be for new generations to emerge in leadership and in a changing world where some overarching concerns necessitate a mutual re-think of relations. Then, too, an intermediary could prove helpful. In any case, I would argue it is important to maintain people-to-people linkages, mutual knowledge and means of exchange. That was a lesson from the Helsinki process in Cold War Europe which proved vital when the opportunity came in 1989-1990 for substantial change. It seems a good idea to prepare now for this.


By: Kourosh Ziabari

“ ODVV interview: Depriving Iran of assistance in the fight against COVID-19 is highly risky ”