The coronavirus outbreak in Iran has reached epic proportions, suggesting tens of thousands could die. The crisis has prompted several countries to demand a temporary respite from US sanctions intended to cripple the Iranian economy.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, unilateral US sanctions on Iran had created a deep recession and shortages of foreign goods.

The sanctions were implemented after the 2018 US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, intended to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency stated that Iran had fully complied with the agreement, yet the US still introduced sanctions to apply “maximum pressure” on Iran.

In practice, this “maximum pressure” meant crippling poverty for the people of Iran even as its government continued to comply with the nuclear agreement.

Human Rights Watch revealed that even before the coronavirus pandemic the sanctions were directly impacting the health of Iranian citizens.

“On several occasions, US officials have indicated that the pain US sanctions are causing for ordinary Iranians is intentional, part of a strategy to compel Iranian citizens to demand their autocratic government to ‘change behavior’– a recipe for collective punishment that infringes on Iranians’ economic rights,” Human Rights Watch reported.

Starving a population in order to force them to oust their government would be something that is usually subtle and cloaked in rhetoric and propaganda, but the US has been unapologetic about its campaign, and such a policy rarely works. Citizens can vigorously oppose whatever government rules over them but most of them will join together and resist if they fear their country is going to be attacked, occupied or otherwise humiliated.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thinks otherwise: “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we are convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”

These sanctions appear to have a siege-mentality intended to “starve them out.” Besieging a city and depriving it of resources in order to break the population is a war crime under international humanitarian law.

When done to an entire country, however, such strategies are portrayed by the media as a light-handed measure that can be freely used as a foreign policy tool by economically powerful nations.

Economic sanctions were already a brutal punishment on the weakest populations in the target country. Now that COVID-19 is creating an unprecedented health-crisis in Iran, calling these sanctions cruel is putting it mildly. Even as the US is struggling with its own Coronavirus crisis, for which its president takes “no responsibility,” it presents Iran’s ineffective and opaque fight against COVID-19 as a wholesale and purposeful murdering of Iranians by its government.

In his March 17 remarks on the matter, while announcing empty gestures that will provide no relief to the thousands of infected Iranians, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “The Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice.” In return for these meaningless gestures, Pompeo had the unmitigated gall to state “in the spirit of humanitarian gestures the United States also continues to call on Iran to immediately release all wrongfully detained Americans being held inside of that country.”

As the US buckles under the consequences of its own non-transparent and ineffective early measures against the virus, it intends to let Iranians starve and die for their government’s similar ineptitude. The US still hopes that those Iranians who survive the current Coronavirus crisis will blame and overthrow their own government. Until that happens, the US appears committed to their inhumane siege of Iran.

Cathy Sultan is the author of five books on the Middle East. They can be found here:


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