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Iran Is Getting Away With Blaming the U.S. for Its Own Coronavirus Mismanagement
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Iran Is Getting Away With Blaming the U.S. for Its Own Coronavirus Mismanagement

And it's getting help from Americans.

As the coronavirus continued to ravage the Iranian population this week, Ayatollah Khamenei raged against his foes, both real and, mostly, imagined. “There are enemies from among jinns [supernatural spirits] and human beings, and they help one another,” Khamenei said in a speech commemorating the Iranian new year. “The intelligence services of many countries collaborate against us. Today, our most malicious enemy and the enemy of the Islamic government is the U.S.” Khamenei dismissed the Trump administration’s offer to provide assistance for combating COVID-19. After pointing to America’s own medical supply shortages, Khamenei flirted with an anti-American conspiracy theory, saying: “You are accused of having created the virus.” Although Iran’s supreme leader conceded he didn’t know if this is true, he warned that the Americans “might give us a medicine that would spread the disease even more or make it last longer.”

Khamenei didn’t say one derogatory word about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or its role in suppressing information about the virus early on. The virus was reportedly first introduced into Iran by Chinese scientists assigned to work on the Iranian regime’s nuclear facilities, or by businessmen shuttling between the two countries, or by religious students attending facilities in Qom. But Khamenei did not address these reports, nor did he reevaluate his theocracy’s partnership with the Chinese and alienation from much of the rest of the world. In keeping with his deep animosity, Khamenei’s invective was aimed solely in America’s direction.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has overseen a campaign to combat Iran’s disinformation. Like President Trump, Pompeo insists on calling it the “Wuhan Virus.” More substantively, the State Department has drawn up a list of rebuttals to Iran’s lies concerning COVID-19 and the effects of American sanctions. This drew the ire of Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who stooped to a childish taunt earlier today, tweeting: “One wonders whether he’s Sec of State or Secretary of Hate.”

Such reactions are  typical of how terrorists and the regimes that sponsor them have reacted to the pandemic. They are interpreting current events through the prism of their long-held religious dogmas and hatreds. And they aren’t the only ones. Some activists in the West are attempting to use the crisis to achieve their pre-existing policy goals as well. 

Even as Khamenei railed against America, some pro-regime actors in the U.S. were agitating to lift the Trump administration’s sanctions against the mullahs. President Obama’s former adviser Ben Rhodes, Joseph Cirincone of the Ploughshares Fund, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) were among those immediately demanding that the U.S. either end or severely curtail its sanctions. Those economic restrictions are designed to limit the destructive force of the Shiite cult ruling Tehran. But the aforementioned parties argue that the sanctions are the principle cause of the Iranian regime’s inability to combat the virus.

At first blush, it is plausible that the economic sanctions do interfere with Iran’s anti-viral efforts. But the regime’s defenders haven’t demonstrated that this is the case. These same actors already portrayed the mullahs as victims in the history of U.S.-Iranian relations. And they simply interpreted the ongoing health crisis through that same myopic lens. 

Most importantly, the pro-regime activists have not shown that the sanctions prevent Iran from purchasing medical supplies. Indeed, there is strong evidence showing the opposite, as the sanctions have always had carve-outs for pharmaceuticals and other goods, all of which are still being imported. The Iranians have already been caught exploiting humanitarian exemptions in the sanctions infrastructure to the tune of billions of dollars. Nonetheless, in February, the U.S. and Switzerland officially opened a trade channel specifically to allow Iran to purchase essential medical supplies, food and other goods. Rhodes has nothing to say about this humanitarian initiative. Nor have the pro-regime activists called on Khamenei to use his vast $200 billion business empire, the ill-gotten gains of his own corruption, to assist the Iranian people.

They have not demanded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) roll back its aggressive and costly expansionist efforts throughout the Middle East, thereby redirecting funds for Iran’s internal needs. They also have not called upon Tehran to stop supporting extremist militias in Iraq, or for Khamenei to prohibit these same militiamen from attacking Americans—an authority the supreme leader certainly has. For example, Rhodes was quick to hold the Trump administration liable for Iran’s coronavirus crisis, but he hasn’t tweeted any condemnations of the Iranian regime’s recent targeting of Americans in Iraq. Nor have Rhodes and his fellow travelers decried the Islamic Republic of Iran’s decision to ban Doctors With Borders from performing its humanitarian work. 

No, the Blame America First crowd only sees the Trump administration’s sanctions. 

One can certainly debate the efficacy of the sanctions and criticize the Trump administration’s policy course with respect to Iran and the Middle East in general. But that is not what the aforementioned ideologues are all about. Their worldview is favorable to Khamenei and his ilk, even as evidence mounts showing the Iranian government has grossly mishandled the pandemic. 

Photograph of Fatemah Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.