Trump's Bungling of Coronavirus Started With Iran | Opinion

President Donald Trump's concept of "America first" is burdened by a misapprehension: that the U.S. enjoys immense power to shape the world abroad yet is somehow immunized from the consequences at home. Not unlike the George W. Bush administration, which argued America needed to "fight the terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them over here" to disastrously self-defeating effect, the Trump administration mistakenly assumes that poor U.S. policy decisions with vast consequences beyond America's borders are justifiable, in part, because the blowback will never reach our shores.

We've seen it in policies like banning refugees and erecting walls, as well as the abandonment of multilateral agreements like the Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal, and now we see it in the "maximum pressure" sanctions on Iran, which have contributed to the global spread of the coronavirus.

The Iranian government's handling of the response to the coronavirus was grossly, if not criminally, negligent. Iranian officials sought to downplay the spread of the virus, arrested some who raised alarms about a potential outbreak and put out false information instead of reckoning with needed preventive measures. However, compounding these failings, U.S. sanctions blocked Iran from procuring testing kits and medical devices, including respiratory machines, as well as medicine produced in the West, which could save lives and stem the spread of the virus.

With almost 300 now dead in Iran and more than 8,000 infected, according to the health ministry on Tuesday, we once again are witnessing how a repressive government inside Iran combined with a cruel U.S. sanctions policy create a perfect storm—with Iranians paying the cost today and the region and world likely paying it tomorrow.

It has been well documented how U.S. sanctions have for years severely limited Iranians' access to lifesaving medicine and medical devices. While humanitarian exemptions have technically been in place to allow for trade in food and medicine, the reality is that few channels exist to facilitate such trade. Most Iranian Americans can share at least one example of a family member in Iran who died of a curable disease or is currently suffering because of sanctions.

The 2015 nuclear accord and lifting of sanctions under President Barack Obama should have ushered in a new era that ended the crisis, but Trump's abrogation of the deal upended that promise, and the situation for Iranians has become even graver. Last September, in a shocking break from longstanding U.S. policy, the Trump administration began directly targeting humanitarian trade. While refusing to admit this intent, the administration unveiled a process for the trade of humanitarian goods with Iran that more closely resembles an intelligence operation to identify new sanctions targets than a legitimate effort to ensure the U.S. does not create a humanitarian crisis.

Thankfully—after weeks in which it was looking like the only U.S. response to the coronavirus in Iran would be more sanctions and travel bans—the Treasury Department temporarily suspended the humanitarian sanctions on Iran's central bank. But the damage has likely already been done, and although my organization has urged for additional steps like a clear authorization to send testing kits, respiratory devices and medicine, a more fundamental rethink of U.S. policy is needed.

Iran coronavirus
Iranians wearing masks walk past a mural displaying their national flag in Tehran on March 4. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty

The fundamental problem is not just that broad sanctions are a blunt tool from which it is difficult to avoid stoking a humanitarian crisis; the problem is also that creating a humanitarian crisis is precisely the point of the maximum pressure sanctions policy. Trump's Iran policy is predicated on imposing sufficient collective punishment that Iranians decide to rise up, whether to topple the government or persuade it to grant concessions to the United States. The "successes" of the policy touted by the administration are Iran's crumbling economy and mass protests by suffering Iranians.

Yet none of this has persuaded Iran's rulers to surrender to U.S. demands. Instead, maximum pressure consolidated the power of Iranian hard-liners and encouraged the Iranian system's predilection for repression, paranoia and subterfuge. This is evident not just in deadly crackdowns on protests (which have been shielded from the world by the Iranian government's disturbingly effective internet disruption enabled, in part, by U.S. sanctions), but in the Iranian government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak that focused first on silencing domestic criticism rather than stopping the looming health crisis.

The bottom line is that a policy that assumes the U.S. can recklessly intervene abroad while remaining immunized from the costs at home—in this case, attempting to create a failed state in the Middle East—simply does not add up. Worsening the spread of a potential global pandemic is one consequence of maximum pressure, but there are many others: Iran's expansion of its nuclear program, which may retrigger a dormant nuclear proliferation crisis; the ongoing risk of a direct military exchange between the U.S. and Iran that drags Americans into war and engulfs the Middle East and beyond; and the draconian Muslim ban on Iranians that continues to undermine core foundations of American democracy.

Under Trump's maximum pressure policy, the only things that have thrived are Iran's nuclear program, Iranian hard-liners and now the coronavirus. It is impossible to justify the looming blowback as "America first."

Jamal Abdi is president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the executive director of NIAC Action. He formerly served as policy adviser on foreign affairs, immigration and defense issues in the U.S. Congress. Abdi has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy and CNN and is a frequent guest contributor in print, radio and television.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.