Iran: COVID-19, repression and US sanctions

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People in Iran suffer COVID-19 Pandemic at the same time as Islamist regime’s repression and US economic sanctions!

The Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR) has accused the Iranian regime of gross irresponsibility and negligence in its approach to the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran.  While there were widespread indications that the virus had reached Iran in January, the regime refused to acknowledge its presence or take any measures to prevent its spread.

CODIR cites as evidence of the regime’s negligence the fact that the regime wanted mass participation in the celebrations marking the 41st anniversary of the 1979 Revolution on 11th February, as well as encouraging a high turnout for the parliamentary elections, that took place on the 21st February.  

The regime’s policy towards the COVID-19 pandemic has proven costly.  It only announced the first two coronavirus deaths on the afternoon of polling day when the election was already well underway.  By then the virus had taken hold throughout the country.   

As of 8 April, according to the regime’s official figures, there have been 74,877 cases of the virus – resulting in 4,683 deaths – with nearly 4,000 people in a critical condition and requiring intensive care.  However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed doubts about these figures, given the size of the population in Iran and the delay before any controls were introduced. 

The recent announcement by the regime that Iranians should return to work will only exacerbate this situation and is likely to result in a more rapid spread of the virus.  In response to criticism of this policy, President Rouhani has indicated that he would rather see “2 million die than 30 million hungry protesting on the streets.”

US sanctions

While the country’s under-resourced and overstretched health sector struggles to deal with the pandemic, the sanctions imposed upon the regime by the United States have not only stayed in place but have been expanded.

The US is refusing to spare Iranian people from the negative impact of the sanctions, which affect the availability and provision of food and medicine while destroying the economic fabric of the country.  The United Nations and leading European powers – including Britain, France and Germany – have officially called on the US to remove the sanctions in order for a humanitarian relief effort to take place to help the beleaguered country’s people.

The US however continues to block a $5bn emergency loan application to the IMF by Iran to help tackle the COVID-19 crisis.

Political prisoners

Against this backdrop the fate of political prisoners is also cause for particular concern.  Prisoners are kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and are subject to routine mistreatment.  Since early-February there have been continual calls for the release of political prisoners or for them to at least be granted temporary leave.  

Just before the Iranian New Year on 20th March, the regime grudgingly assented to the release of thousands of prisoners.  However, those political prisoners with a sentence of longer than 5 years were excluded from the release.  Amongst those refused temporary release are Nasrin Sotoudeh, lawyer and human rights campaigner; Narges Mohammadi, women rights campaigner; and Mohammad Habibi, teacher trade unionist campaigner, currently serving a 10-year term on account of his union activities.  

An estimated 30,000 prisoners – out of 100,000 slated for possible release – were not set free.  This number included a significant number of political prisoners as well as convicted criminals.  The decision to deny the release of these prisoners, despite the desperate situation vis a vis the virus inside the prison system and the widespread calls for mercy to be shown, led to serious revolts in several jails.  In Saqez, several prisoners managed to break out of the jail there, while there have been reports that a number of prisoners have also been killed during these disturbances. 

Workers at risk

Furthermore, the regime is refusing to support the call for the provision of a safe environment for emergency work to be carried out and is not providing guarantees for workplaces that decide to stop production owing to the pandemic.  This means that workers are coerced into going to their workplaces, despite the dangers, rather than being left jobless, destitute and hungry.  

The combination of the sheer ineptitude and brutal disregard of the Iranian regime with the vengeful action of the US, in intensifying sanctions, is putting the lives of many ordinary Iranians at risk.  Both must be opposed; both must be stopped.

Jamshid Ahmadi, Assistant General Secretary, CODIR

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