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Canada should lift sanctions on Iran now

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Image: Graphic by Iranian artist Shirin Barghi​

Canada's Liberal government is still sustaining economic sanctions on Iran despite the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As public health officials now struggle with rising infection rates in what appears to be a second wave in Iran, Canada's sanctions must come to an end. 

Economic sanctions are hindering the ability of Iran's public health-care system to deal with the pandemic and have detrimentally impacted public health for years in key areas, including cancer care. 

In regards to the current pandemic, the BBC reported on June 25 that "new infections have been averaging more than 3,000," a week, amounting to "a 50 per cent increase" from May statistics in the country. 

In Iran, the same public hospitals and health-care workers who have been dealing with the impacts of economic sanctions for years, are now at the centre of the current struggle to contain the pandemic, operating within a health system reliant on allocations from public budgetary lines that are directly hit by international sanctions. 

The fact that public health-care operations in Iran have been central to the struggle against COVID-19 is important and must be taken into consideration by the Liberal government in Ottawa, as political demands for sanction relief emerge.

Western reporting fails to address the complexity of Iran's public institutions

The complexities of this reality in Iran has seen tens of thousands of public health-care workers at risk on the medical front lines (with some even dancing in hospitals to boost morale). However, many international media reports, including a CBC article in March that declared "conspiracy theories and religious bickering slow COVID-19 response," instead adopt a tone of mockery that works to equate all elements of the Iranian state, failing to explore the diversity of political views within Iran's public infrastructure, including public health institutions and Iranian political figures. 

This limited framework of western reporting on Iran leaves out any in-depth focus on the brave work of public health-care workers and the steadfast response of many public health institutions in Iran to the pandemic.

As is clear in Canada and certainly within the U.S., public health officials and conservative politicians are often at odds and have been battling it out throughout the pandemic on the direction of public policy, a reality made crystal clear by news reports on the daylight between President Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Although both figures exist within the same broad apparatus of the U.S. government, there is clearly major disagreement on the best public policy approach to the pandemic. 

By contrast, media coverage on Iran mostly focuses on elements of the Iranian government that stand in political conflict with G7 power structures, not on exploring the ways other elements of the Iranian state, including public health institutions and officials, have been responding to the pandemic.

This article in no way aims to celebrate the response of Iran's government and public institutions to the pandemic. Given this is written in Canada, this article simply calls on western media outlets to look at all the facets of the response by public institutions in Iran to the pandemic, and to not primarily focus coverage of the political rhetoric of internationally known Iranian politicians. 

Danger of sanctions on Iran during a pandemic

Currently the dangers presented by the pandemic persist in Iran and on this point the sustained sanctions by western governments, including Canada's, must be addressed critically. 

Al Jazeera reported on June 29 that "Iran has reported 162 new deaths from the novel coronavirus, the highest single-day toll since the outbreak began in the country in February." 

News from Iran over the past month clearly indicates that the pandemic isn't under control and that the first wave of infections never really came to a close. It is a sustained battle against COVID-19 that the public health-care system in Iran is waging. 

Iranian scholar Seyed Hossein Mousavian writes, adressing U.S. sanctions, that lifting "the sanctions on Iran's financial institutions [would] allow the country to receive at least a portion of its oil revenue. This would allow the Iranian government to swiftly buy the medical equipment and drugs it needs to treat coronavirus patients."

This analysis must also extend to Ottawa, as Canada's sanctions on Iran also help to sustain the same frameworks of financial exclusion for Iranian exports, to oil markets and otherwise, which in turn hits Iran's public health-care budget.

Like the Trump administration, the Canadian Liberal government sustains a complex web of financial sanctions on the Iranian government and financial system that also creates difficulties for Iranians of the diaspora to send funds to family members. This is inhumane. 

Canada's ongoing sanctions on Iran speak to a general policy toward the Iranian government that is based on confrontation, not diplomacy. 

The Liberal government campaigned vigorously since Trudeau's election win in 2015 for a seat on the UN Security Council (which ultimately failed), with the prime minister arguing for "multilateralism" and diplomacy. 

Despite this rhetoric, the Liberal government has maintained the controversial move by Canada's previous Conservative government in 2012 under Stephen Harper, to not maintain diplomatic relations with the Iranian regime. François-Philippe Champagne, minister of foreign affairs, acknowledged this in February at a speech for the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations. 

Canada's sanctions on Iran are an extension of this political framework: an aggressive policy that works to undercut the economic well-being and health of the Iranian people. Also, a sanctions-driven policy approach directly undercuts any political space that Canada could have for diplomatic negotiations with the Iranian government. 

On COVID-19, a second wave of cases in Iran directly impedes the global effort to end this terrible pandemic. International sanctions, sustained by both the Canadian and U.S. governments, hurt the ability of Iran's national health-care system to cope. 

"This outbreak is testing us in many ways. It is a test of political solidarity, whether the world can come together to fight a common enemy that does not respect borders or ideologies. And it is a test of scientific solidarity, will the world come together to find shared answers to shared problems," said Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Taking this into account, Canada shouldn't be maintaining sanctions that damage Iran's ability to finance its health-care system to fight the pandemic. 

Canada's sanctions do this because they are an important part of the international financial apparatus of sanctions that seriously restrict the finances of the Iranian government, the same government which, agree or disagree with Iran's military policies, is the main funder of the public healthcare system.

Campaigning against the sanctions, the Courage coalition writes:

"Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy PM Christina 'Chrystia' Freeland speak eloquently on listening to scientific advice at this moment and in fact science is clear, to battle this global pandemic we need international solidarity and global medical coordination, not support for sectarian sanctions shaped by the Trump administration. Canada must get off the vindictive sanctions train."

EU officials create financial space outside of U.S. sanctions regime on Iran while Canada is silent

In contrast to Canada and the U.S., countries within the EU have taken action to relieve some sanctions within the context of the global pandemic.

The Telegraph in the U.K. reports:

"Britain, France and Germany have for the first time used a complex financial system that bypasses US sanctions to send medical aid to Iran, raising hopes of salvaging the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. According to the German foreign ministry, the medical supplies safely arrived in Iran after a transaction using the Instex system, which was set up in response to Donald Trump, the US president, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and imposing severe sanctions on the regime. Earlier this month, Britain, Germany and France had announced they would offer a €5million (£4m) package to help Iran tackle the coronavirus, as well as medical equipment for testing and protective clothing."

In 2016, Trudeau spoke at the United Nations about the interconnectedness of global issues, saying that "reengaging in global affairs through institutions like the United Nations," is important because, "it doesn't serve our interests or the worlds to pretend that we are not deeply affected by what happens beyond our borders."

In the case of Canada's sanctions on Iran, they are a serious blow to the financial capacity for the Iranian government to adequately fund the public health-care system struggling with the virus and by extension the Iranian diaspora to send the funds needed for families facing the COVID-19.

Sanctions are compounding the danger and risk of the pandemic in the country. One study at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran indicates potentially devastating impacts of the virus in Iran, as reported by DW news.

A sustained pandemic in Iran impacts the global fight against COVID-19 and also deeply touches the significant Iranian community within Canada. Canada and Iran are deeply connected; in Canada's 2016 census 210,405 Canadians listed Iran as their country of origin.

Beyond the Liberals, the NDP has also been silent in regards to any critique of sustained Canada sanctions on Iran during the pandemic. In the U.S. progressive lawmakers, including senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sent a public letter to the Trump administration on March 31 calling for sanctions relief for Iran.

Now is the time for the Liberal government in Ottawa to end sanctions on Iran. The sanctions amount to vindictive economic measures that directly hurt the fight against the pandemic in Iran, leading to a greater amount of suffering and death, while also detrimentally impacting the ongoing global struggle against the pandemic. 

Stefan Christoff is a community organizer, musician and media maker in Montreal. You can find him on Twitter @spirodonHe is a member of the Courage Coalition

Image: Graphic by Iranian artist Shirin Barghi​

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