BRIAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: COVID-19 in the Middle East.
Iran first admitted having coronavirus cases in February. Nearly two months later it remains the epicenter of the outbreak in the Middle East. More than 60,000 people are infected with the virus, and more than 3,700 have died. Of course, those are official government numbers out of Tehran. So the actual toll is likely much higher.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Last month, Tehran’s leaders asked for a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. They also demanded the United States lift sanctions imposed when Washington pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreement. On Monday, a group of former U.S. diplomats and European leaders gave their backing to that plan, calling it necessary to fight the disease. They sent a letter to the White House urging President Trump to ease his “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
BENHAM BEN TALEBLU: Good morning. Great to be with you and thanks for having me.
EICHER: Let’s start with the messages coming out of Iran. On the one hand, Tehran told the United Nation that U.S. sanctions are hampering its fight against the coronavirus. But I understand that in their own government meetings leaders are telling a different story. Can you talk about that?
TALEBLU: Sure. I mean, most unfortunately, though, you have the regime paralleling its talking points at home with some talking points abroad. And for the past 41 years—and the Islamic Republic has been around for 41 years—they’ve often looked to point a finger abroad for the problems at home. We now know because of selective leaks and different reporting and the firsthand accounts, that the regime botched the response to the coronavirus. And, in fact, the regime created a coronavirus crisis.
What the government and what the people are suffering from isn’t a sanctions issue. It’s a management issue. It’s a style and substance issue. They chose to under-report, downplay, and dare I even say ignore and neglect the threat posed by the coronavirus crisis because in the aftermath of the killing of the commander of the IRGC—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Qassem Soleimani—as well as their failed strike on the U.S. bases, as well as the downing of the Ukraine airliner, the regime was looking for a large domestic rally and they looked to project onto the late February parliamentary elections a barometer of legitimacy.
We now know that this was one of the lowest turnouts ever, but the regime encouraged mass turnout and did not address, mention, properly deal with the public health crisis that was about to become the coronavirus crisis. So, negligence there rather than sanctions. Once they caught onto it, they downplayed it. And then after they downplayed it, they botched it. This is about government management, not about economics.
Just about a day and a half ago you had Iran’s supreme leader tap into the sovereign wealth fund, if you will. It’s like a national reserve, a national fund. This is money on hand, but this is also too little too late. Why did the regime wait until early-to-mid-April to tap into this fund? They had the money. Were they trying to simply elicit a change in western posture? I believe so.
EICHER: Yeah, and that’s what I was going to get to next. And, again, to be clear, you’re saying that Iran has what it needs to battle back against the coronavirus. Nobody is suggesting that we take a stance of, ‘Oh well, too bad, you’re a rogue nation. We’re going to let you die of a terrible disease.’ Nobody’s saying that.
TALEBLU: No, no one is saying that. And even in populations, even in countries where there are rogue states that are adversarial with the international system and adversarial with America, America has bent over backwards before to try to provide humanitarian aid. I think Iran has been their case in point. The U.S. has tried to provide aid in response to Iranian earthquakes in the past. Aid in response to Iranian flooding in the past. This is not a bipartisan issue. This is a nonpartisan issue in America. Republican, Democrat presidents have tried to do this before.
So, it’s not out of the ordinary for the Trump administration to try to offer humanitarian aid to Iran at this juncture.
EICHER: OK. And I’d like to pick up on another thread that you were developing in the first answer, which is an idea of what you think Iran is trying to do. And I want to suggest maybe this is just an effort to gain international sympathy during a difficult time in hopes of that larger goal of lifting sanctions and getting right back to work on a nuclear program and all the rest. In other words, don’t let a good crisis go to waste. Is that what you think?
TALEBLU: Absolutely. And there has been a unity of purpose in the talking points at home and abroad by regime elites in Tehran. And they’ve tried to use every crisis to put forward a different iteration of the same argument, which is that we are suffering because of Western sanctions. We are suffering because of American “arrogance” is a term they use. Lift the sanctions and all will be good.
Whereas really the sanctions game, even in the Trump administration—which has a max pressure campaign underway against Tehran—is responding to rather than driving the crisis.
The month of March, for instance, we saw several different iterations of sanctions coming out of the Treasury Department and State Department. Still, that is proof that the U.S. government is playing catch-up on the sanctions filed to the threats Iran, its proxies, and its bad banks and illicit networks pose. These activities by Iran are still being underwritten and are still ongoing in peak coronavirus crisis conditions. Iran’s entire defense establishment—not just the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and military—but the law-enforcement forces and those who crack skulls at home are getting growth spurts in their budgets under sanctions and under the coronavirus crisis.
So, again, Iran is acting like not a normal nation. Normal nations when there’s a public health crisis will put their people first. That isn’t what’s happening here. Instead the argument is being put forward first to lift sanctions so this bad behavior can continue unimpeded.
EICHER: And yet that argument is gaining some ground internationally, as I mentioned at the beginning, among some European capitals and with former U.S. diplomats. Why do you suppose?
TALEBLU: Well, there’s many different reasons, but the Occam’s Razor approach, the simplest is the most powerful, most explanatory is of course you see the crisis and you want to do something about it. I’m an Iranian-American. I see the crisis and my heart goes out to people from where ancestrally I’m from. So, I assume that that group of people first wants to do that.
But one can’t forget that that issue—the coronavirus crisis—is not divorced from some of the other issues that Washington and Tehran have with each other.
And this gets to the second reason, where there’s a large cadre of folks—former diplomats, prominent think-tankers, prominent public personalities both in Europe and in America—that were part of this negotiating process, the 2015 JCPOA—that’s the Joint Comprehensive Point of Action Nuclear Deal, which Obama inked and Trump dismantled—that still want to revive that deal, that still want to revive that legacy. And not only is that legacy not revivable because of Iran’s myriad violations of that deal, but that legacy’s not revivable because even with the deal being in place, some of its major restrictions are already or would be collapsing. So, it has limited value to want to return to that. So, the argument to lift sanctions, suspend sanctions and then go back to what the status quo was, which was really a private, quiet call to go back to that nuclear deal, which really handicapped American tools of punishment and coercion and deterrence is also what I think has been going on. And on that front, it is, I think, somewhat more sinister because it’s also using a crisis to put forward a political argument.
EICHER: At the end of last year, we saw an unprecedented level of protests in Iran and the outbreak of coronavirus has seems to have halted any sort of momentum toward regime change that might have been building. What’s your sense of this? Do you think that the undercurrent of anger at government leaders has dissipated or do you think that it has just gone underground? What would you say to that?
TALEBLU: I would say there’s been a temporary pause. There’s been very interesting protests going on in Iran from 2017 until present. Because from 2017 until present those leading the protests across myriad different cities did not begin in Tehran, the nation’s capital, where there is an educated and urbane well-connected population. It began from the periphery. And these are really from 2017 to present, including the one in November-December 2019, are really blue-collar folks, people who have social grievances, economic grievances, very much so political grievances, but are being sustained by their larger distaste with how their government acts at home and how their government acts abroad.
So, history tells us that there will be another. There could be a brief blip because of the coronavirus issue. And then I think it may return.
EICHER: Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in tightly packed but socially distanced Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for joining us today. Stay safe. Stay healthy.
TALEBLU: You too. Thank you so much. Stay safe and stay healthy to you and your listeners.