1. Update
  2. Middle East & Iran

Sanctions Hurt Innocent Civilians and the Global Struggle against COVID-19

By Ethan Azad, March 25, 2020


On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a global pandemic. In the U.S., the concerned public responded by stocking up on supplies, leaving grocery store aisles empty of rice, eggs, and yes, toilet paper.

Mosque in Tehran

But while the crisis in the U.S. is still ramping up, Iran and its healthcare system have been overwhelmed by the virus for months. Iran was among the first and hardest hit nations, with over 27,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and 2,000 deaths. What makes Iran’s crisis unique is that it is trying to deal with the pandemic in the context of crushing sanctions imposed by the U.S. Iran’s difficulty in containing the spread of COVID-19 illustrates how U.S. sanctions have impacts far beyond the ones that policymakers intended.

Iran’s healthcare sector, like that of the U.S., is suffering from a lack of medical equipment and supplies. Despite their many differences, U.S. and Iranian officials also both neglected to take the outbreak seriously at its onset. The difference between them is that sanctions imposed by the U.S. make Iran’s already unmanageable crisis harder to confront, spurring its spread to other nations.

Iran’s difficulty in containing the spread of COVID-19 illustrates how U.S. sanctions have impacts far beyond the ones that policymakers intended.

While it is true that Iranian officials were delayed in their response to the outbreak, so were most other governments around the world. Any discussion of the coronavirus in Iran must account for the fact that sanctions have made it nearly impossible for authorized banks to conduct transactions, even for humanitarian trade.

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” has led most international banks and lenders to steer clear of doing any business with Iran for fear of being implicated in sanctions violations. The result has been deficiencies in the vital equipment and supplies necessary to detect, treat, and stop the spread of COVID-19 and to address routine medical and basic health needs.

The U.S. is currently imposing sanctions on 39 countries around the world with the intention of coercing them into changing their decision making due to economic isolation. As the pandemic demonstrates, however, these sanctions often have harmful impacts that reach far beyond their intended targets.

Statements of solidarity ring hollow to the ears of the ordinary Iranians whose businesses are shutting down and whose friends and family members are dying.

Sanctions are causing Iranians to cross borders in increased numbers, spreading the disease to neighboring countries—Afghanistan, in particular—that lack the healthcare infrastructure necessary to contain the virus. As the virus spreads through the region, the consequences will be devastating; not only for public health, but also for local and national economies, political systems, and regional stability.

While the Trump administration has made the claim that it “stands with the Iranian people,” such statements of solidarity ring hollow to the ears of the ordinary Iranians whose businesses are shutting down and whose friends and family members are dying. Surely, this is not what Congress intended when it imposed crippling sanctions on Iran—sanctions that the administration has expanded in the midst of the pandemic.

Maybe the silver lining of the pandemic is that it will allow Americans to see how significantly their government’s policies impact the people of other nations, and more importantly, how interconnected we all are as an international community. Congress and the administration should move immediately to suspend the sanctions that endanger the lives of millions of civilians and hinder global efforts to contain the pandemic.

If there was ever a time to provide sanctions relief, this is it. Iranians, Americans, and the international community at large all require as much to be successful in the global struggle against the coronavirus.

Background Responding to the Coronavirus 

The coronavirus pandemic is a generational threat, and its impacts will be felt by all of us. But know this: Our work for peace and justice will go on. Here’s how we will continue our advocacy in the face of COVID-19 and how you can join us.

Ethan Azad

  • Program Assistant, Middle East Policy

Ethan Azad is FCNL’s program assistant on Middle East policy. He works with FCNL’s legislative team to advance progressive policies on Capitol Hill.