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Middle East scholars assess impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran during pandemic
Production of masks in Shāh Chérāgh shrine. Photo Credit: Mohammadreza Farhad

Middle East scholars assess impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran during pandemic

April 20, 2020 at 11:08am

While the clock continues to turn on the coronavirus’ spread throughout the world, eyes are beginning to turn to the United States’ handling of sanctions on countries affected by COVID-19.

Iran is seeing the some of the worst effects of the difficulties presented by sanctions, say FIU experts.

"By exacerbating the situation in Iran and limiting their ability to fight COVID-19 within their borders ... we are simultaneously hindering the ability of our allies in the region to fight theirs as well,” said Eric Lob, professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations and an expert on U.S.-Iran relations. “No borders are completely sealed.”

Lob joined Richard Nephew, senior research scholar at Columbia University for a conversation on the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in Iran sponsored by FIU’s Moshin and Fauzia Jaffer Center for Muslim World Studies, part of the Steven J. Green School for International & Public Affairs

“The problem is that without having any legitimate trade with Iran to facilitate economic functions, there is no economic rationale for banks and the like to operate normally,” Nephew said. “The costs are high, the benefits are low, [so] why engage with Iran in terms of business?”

The sanctions have created a situation in which the United States does not support trade with Iran. According to Nephew, since the Trump administration has said that they will not be lifting the sanctions under any circumstances, a much more practical and immediate act of relief would be to modify the existing sanctions if lifting them altogether is impossible.

“People underestimate the length to which the regime is willing to stay in power,” continued Nephew.

“In my travels back to Iran, when you talked to people, you got a sense that people want a change, and they were not looking forward to the instability of a revolution,” said Naisy Sarduy, professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations. “There is a lot of criticism of the government and its [lack of] transparency.”

Despite the sanctions causing a considerable amount of damage to the effort to contain the coronavirus, legitimate health issues have arisen due to ideological concerns overshadowing public safety. Over the past several weeks, various shrines, pilgrimage sites, and other tourist spots have not been shut down by local and state authorities despite widespread COVID-19 infections in each area.

“Religious and ideological concerns over keeping the shrines open also exacerbated the situation,” said Lob. “The time wasted with these issues allowed COVID-19 to slip through the cracks and infect much more people that would otherwise have been kept safe.”

Even though cases were beginning to appear in late January, it was not until late March that the Iranian government started to take things seriously.

“Unlike the U.S., you're dealing with two executives in the country,” continued Lob. “[Iranian President Hassan Rouhani] had to ask for authorization from the Supreme Leader.” 

The Supreme Leader waited 11 days from mid-March to early April for permission to be granted.

While the United States has not shown signs that it will be modifying the currently imposed sanctions, there is still an opportunity for relations with Iran to be rectified.

“I believe the pandemic will move some tectonic plates on a macro level, and I think that's where we're going to see opportunities for Iran and the U.S. to create common ground and work together,” said Mohamad Homayounvash, professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations. “Sanctions are not immune to the law of diminishing returns and economics, and at some point, they're going to run out of stuff to sanction.”

Click here to view the Iran discussion.