Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Mar 30, 2020
The global fight against COVID19 cannot exclude Iran

On March 19, in the middle of the global pandemic of Coronavirus (Covid 19), which has ravaged countries, cities, and societies in over 150 countries US Secretary of State announced new sanctions against Iran, on back of the attacks on Camp Taji in Iraq.

Since the killing of well known Iranian military leader General Qasem Soleimani two months ago, relations between Tehran and Washington D.C. have been on the cusp of falling off the edge of a cliff. In midst of these geo-political tensions, the advent of a pandemic has put the Iranian economy and society, reeling by the effects of sanctions for years, next to a catastrophe.

There have been global calls for the US to ease sanctions against Iran in order for the country to get emergency aid, with the death toll from Covid 19 crossing 2,600 people including dozens of medical professionals who are at the frontlines of a dire situation in the country. The total number of Covid 19 cases in Iran has also crossed the 38,000 mark, and is steadily rising.

Today, the ongoing health crisis in Iran cannot be seen from an exclusionary lens of geo-politics. At the moment, both the administration of US President Donald Trump and the Iranian regime are attempting to keep the pre-pandemic status quo, lulling themselves and their citizens into a dangerous false-pretext of blaming each other for the loss of human lives in Iran due to the virus.

In a letter addressed to the American people, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said: “The Iranian people…will repel this virus as well as sanctions born of the callous policy of maximum pressure and will endure once again with resilience and pride.” Meanwhile, the country’s foreign minister Javad Zarif  tweeted that the only remedy is to defy US sanctions as the coronavirus cases continue to surge in the country.

Iran’s troubles may have started in the holy city of Qom, a Shiite pilgrimage city that is home to seminaries run by various ayatollahs. The first case, as per reports, may have been a merchant that travelled between Qom and Wuhan, China, where the virus has its origins. The first two deaths from the virus in Qom came on February 19, and since then, the disease made significant progress across Iran, even infecting the country’s deputy health minister Iraj Harichi also contracting the virus after being seen sweating profusely at a news conference.

India as well has had to evacuate more than 400 citizens from Iran over the past few weeks using special and commercial flight.

In times of such crisis, where the enemy can not be seen, and does not respect our artificial constructs of nations, race, religions and states, geo-political rivalries exasperated by both the Iranian regime and the Trump administration firmly puts both the US and Iran on the same pedestal, one that stands in the way of the global effort to defeat the most significant public health emergency of our times.

While the US managed to find time between its lack of global leadership and becoming the model of ‘Westlessness’ to further squeeze Iran via sanctions, the Iranian regime has continuously been the chief architect of its own isolation by creating an environment of mistrust and confusion, with both countries and aid agencies being unsure whether the Iranian people will in fact be the first to receive the benefits of supplies of aid, or the regime will divert the same towards its military and militias in an attempt to protect the gains made from Tehran’s role in the Syrian civil war and beyond. Iran has, for the first time since 1962, requested for financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fight against the pandemic. However, with the current sanctions in place, even getting the IMF funds will be a challenge in itself. Unfortunately, Iran has shown no signs of reigning in its proxies working all over the region to undermine Israel, Saudi Arabia and US interests and in turn has resorted to promoting absurd theories such as the virus having been built specifically to target Iranians.

During the ongoing crisis, when social media is flooded with information and pictures of Iranian medical workers who lost their lives while fighting the pandemic, the push and shove between Tehran and Washington D.C. is immensely counterproductive and based on a two-way street of stubborn politics which is prepared to sacrifice people at a time when global conscience needs to look, and successfully find that balance of morality and ethical maturity which, in the world of international relations, seems akin to finding gold at the end of a rainbow. The recognition of the pandemic being a truly global crisis is not only the need of the hour, but will need to be a bipartisan institutionalized response as economies will struggle over the next many months to come back into normalcy.

This is where India as well needs to prepare itself even further. While Iran turned out to be the epicenter of Covid 19 in West Asia, all countries have taken strict measures and economies have been struck down heavily as businesses, big and small, either move to a work-from-home model or completely shut down. From the UAE that went on a lockdown to Jordan, which installed a strict curfew with a zero tolerance policy of crowd gathering, the Gulf countries along with the larger West Asian region will also reel from economic pressures in the months to come. Nonetheless, geo-political tensions even with a looming pandemic remain steadfast in the region, with tensions with Tehran remaining a constant, leaving little room for regional cooperation against Covid 19 beyond a point.

Meanwhile, the outcome of an economic slowdown in the Gulf as fallout of Covid 19 seems inevitable, and will also directly impact more than 8 million Indians working in the region in various capacities, with majority being in the labor sector. The state of Kerala saw its first case of Covid 19 coming from passengers travelling from Dubai on 12 March, this rose to 25 positive cases within 24 hours, 23 out of which had returned from the Gulf. Dubai, itself, is now the top source of Covid 19 cases in India. While Delhi managed to fly out stranded Indians from Iran, a sizeable evacuation from the Gulf region is almost out of question.

In the UAE alone, analysts believe the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) collectively may need a minimum $40 billion infusion to begin with, and many small to medium sized industries may shut down permanently. Out of all this, migrant workers are expected to be hit the hardest, and in the inevitable job losses coming, thousands will look to move back to their native countries. Here, India may face an inward exodus of sorts, with a wave of returning workers looking to settle into an already struggling job market. For example, Qatar Airways this past week fired 200 workers from the Philippines as the airline industry grinded to a halt. Beyond this, migrant workers from this region are responsible for sending more than $40 billion into the Indian economy annually in form of remittances, an important facet of the country’s annual budgets. All these factors will be looming over the Indian government as possible fallout of a global recession in the future.

The politics of Iran’s obsession with the US, Trump’s obsession with Iran, the likes of Israel and Saudi pushing the US against Tehran and an upcoming US election later this year has made the breakout of Covid 19 in Iran a political game of cat and mouse where the only loser is turning out to be the average Iranian citizen, and some of the country’s finest medical professionals. For general global stability, stability of West Asia, and the global economy, the Covid 19 outbreak in Iran cannot be seen solitarily, and in these trying times, has to be seen as a problem of the global commons. It is imperative that capitals around the world, including New Delhi, ask for loosening of sanctions against Tehran for it to import critical supplies to join the global fight against the most existential public health emergency of our times.

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Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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