The problem with “maximum pressure,” however — a policy ostensibly designed to force Iran to accept an improved nuclear deal and end its meddling in the Middle East — is that two years in, it has done nothing to advance either of those goals. Indeed, even in the administration’s own reckoning, Iran is now a more destabilizing actor in the region. It has targeted Gulf shipping with mine attacks, undertaken drone and missile strikes on Saudi refineries and pipelines, provided military support to violent proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria, and is now no longer abiding by the main limitations of the 2015 nuclear deal. To be sure, U.S. secondary sanctions have wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy — which was in free fall even before the recent onset of global recession and collapse in oil prices — but imposing pain on Iranians was supposed to be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
With Iran now one of the focal points of the covid-19 outbreak, the administration’s maximum-pressure campaign might be about to do considerable additional damage — but not only to Iran. In the face of an impending humanitarian catastrophe in Iran and desperate appeals for an urgent international response, the Trump administration has, unsurprisingly, responded by calling for more pressure and ever more sanctions, the latest of which were imposed on March 18. Some in the administration, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, now reportedly believe the time is right for retaliatory military strikes on Iran, hoping that might finally prove to be the way to get the regime to back down.
Unfortunately, rather than leading to Iranian capitulation, doubling down on this approach will more likely lead to many more Iranian deaths, further the spread of the virus to Iran’s neighbors, cast the United States as a villain in Iran and much of the world, and allow China to posture as the more responsible actor when it in fact bears a significant degree of blame.
The responsibility for Iran’s tragic mismanagement of the pandemic, of course, falls squarely on the Iranian government, whose disinformation campaign, corruption and incompetence have cost some 2,000 lives so far. But that reality does not change the fact that Iran’s covid-19 problem isn’t just an Iranian problem but also a threat to the region and the world.
Iran shares long, porous borders with neighbors, including Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries to which the United States has dedicated trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to stabilize. Turkey, Pakistan and Iran’s neighbors in the Gulf are also affected by the spread of covid-19, as are Syria and Lebanon, states with significant ties to Tehran. If the pandemic spreads in such conflict-torn nations as Syria and Yemen, vulnerable populations in refugee camps and displacement sites could find themselves in an even more dire condition, leading to further refugee flows to the West. The spread of the coronavirus could also affect international inspectors’ ability to remain in Iran, complicating international efforts to monitor its nuclear program.
Even in the scenario in which U.S. pressure somehow leads the Iranian regime to collapse — which, though unlikely, seems to be the administration’s real goal — it is fair to ask whether the political and social collapse of a country of 80 million people at a time of a global pandemic is in the United States’ — or anybody’s — interest.
The answer to this challenge is not to abandon the critical goals of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons or of containing its regional influence, nor is it to provide blanket sanctions relief that the regime could use for anything beyond humanitarian purposes. Instead, it is for the United States to act in its own interest with measures that can help alleviate the certain catastrophe that maintaining the current policy will likely produce.
The United States should pause any further escalation of its failing sanctions campaign, offer Iran whatever help it needs to fight the pandemic; expand the list of humanitarian and medical goods exempt from U.S. sanctions, and pledge not to sanction any bank, company or nongovernmental organization involved in providing medical support. Washington should also support an International Monetary Fund loan to be used exclusively to combat the virus and put further sanctions relief on the table in exchange for Iranian nuclear restraint and cooperation in the region.
Critics will say this approach would only reward Iranian bad behavior and bail out a regime that bears responsibility for the tragedy affecting its country. The alternative, however, could be a far greater tragedy that affects us all.