Iran’s regime has launched a massive new campaign claiming its failure to handle the coronavirus crisis is due to sanctions imposed by the United States. There’s not an iota of truth to this claim, and it’s by no means a widely held view. Still, several U.S. lawmakers are backing up similar talking points by the regime’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Zarif on Tuesday claimed “unlawful US sanctions” are draining Iran's economic resources, impairing his regime’s ability to fight COVID-19.
The next day Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted: “As a caring nation, we must lift any sanctions hurting Iran’s ability to address this crisis, including financial sanctions.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Ilhan Omar last week tweeted: “We need to suspend these sanctions before more lives are lost.”
And on Wednesday, President Barack Obama’s former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes claimed it is a “moral abomination” that the U.S. is “continuing to enforce sanctions on Iran while its people die because of a virus that threatens all humanity.”
In reality, the coronavirus outbreak in Iran has nothing to do with U.S. sanctions and everything to do with the regime’s own actions.
Here’s a partial list of the ways in which the regime has helped the virus spread across Iran, and from there to other countries:
Fact: Ever since the outbreak in Iran, Mahan Air, affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), has continued flights to and from China, the geographical source of COVID-19.
Fact: When COVID-19 first reached Iran, authorities covered up its existence since they needed people to take part in the Parliamentary election sham in February to give their regime a veneer of legitimacy.
Fact: President Hassan Rouhani has explicitly ruled out quarantining any cities.
Fact: The IRGC have been caught hoarding millions of medical supplies including disinfectants, gloves and masks, selling them on the black-market at 10 times the price.
Fact: Iran’s regime“donated” three million face masks to China as a “sign of long-term and traditional friendship between two countries.”
Fact: In January, the regime’s Supreme Leader authorized €200 million for the terrorist IRGC Qods Force – money that could instead be used in the fight against the pandemic.
Fact: Iran's regime just spent $67 million redecorating the Zeynab Shrine in Syria with money that could have gone to fighting the coronavirus.
Fact: Despite the hostilities, the U.S. has publicly offered to help Iran during the public health crisis via the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA). Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even pointed out that the donation of medicine to Iran is exempt from U.S. sanctions. But the U.S. offer was outright rejected by the regime in Tehran.
U.S. sanctions have not hampered the work of the World Health Organization (WHO) which has sent Iran diagnostic kits and protective equipment for healthcare workers, including 7.5 tons of medical supplies. The United Arab Emirates also sent two planeloads of hygienic items to Iran while Kuwait pledged to help Iran with $10 million without any restriction.
For the sake of argument, let’s say President Trump today lifts all sanctions on the regime; that wouldn't stop IRGC flights to China, or its hoarding of medical items, or lessen the amount of funds allocated for IRGC terror abroad. The problem lies not in the sanctions, but in the regime itself.
Now let’s look at what’s driving those who parrot Zarif’s talking points and thus effectively side with the regime. There’s a little-known Iranian lobby group guiding their positions.
The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is effectively an arm of the Iranian regime’s Intelligence Ministry in the US. Earlier this year, RealClearInvestigations reported the group has been exerting influence in Congress.
On January 7, after Iran’s regime fired missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq, NIAC issued a statement saying, “Donald Trump owns this 100%.”
The next day, NIAC co-hosted a “No War With Iran Strategy Call” that featured a number of pro-regime U.S. lawmakers.
It gets worse. In recent years, NIAC has managed to place a number of interns in the offices of members of Congress. Among them is Mahyar Sorour, who mounted an unsuccessful run last year for an NIAC Action board seat, and who is also Rep. IIhan Omar’s senior legislative assistant. Other lawmakers who have legislative assistants or interns that stem from NIAC include Rep. Barbara Lee and Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
In January, three Republican senators sent a letter to the Attorney General “urging the Department of Justice to investigate the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and its sister organization, NIAC Action, for potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.”
NIAC previously tried to sue its opponents for accusing it of lobbying for Tehran. It lost. U.S. District Court Judge John Bates said NIAC couldn’t prove it wasn’t acting at the behest of Iran. He added that NIAC founder Trita Parsi's work was “not inconsistent with the idea that he was first and foremost an advocate for the regime.”
Parsi and Zarif have had a close working relationship. Parsi routinely consulted with the Obama administration, meeting officials no less than 33 times, according to White House visitor logs. This included private, one-on-one meetings with Ben Rhodes, who led the Obama White House’s “Echo Chamber” in support of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran’s regime. Rhodes also delivered the keynote speech at the 2016 NIAC leadership conference. In recent years, the regime’s US lobby has continued to endorse NIAC and take part in their fundraising schemes.
It seems, therefore, when it comes to calls for an end to sanctions, U.S. apologists for Iran’s regime aren’t just speaking for themselves. They’re speaking for the mullahs as well.
Anyone genuinely concerned over the spread of the coronavirus in Iran should be pressing the regime to stop hoarding medicine, tell the truth to its people, take up the U.S. offer of assistance, stop funding terrorist groups outside Iran and dissolve the IRGC, using its funds to care for its people instead of spreading terror at home and abroad.
Hanif Jazayeri is a London-based news editor and Iranian opposition activist. Twitter:@HanifJazayeri