Blocking medical aid to Iran isn’t just immoral, it’s stupid

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Let’s say that changing the regime in Iran is your top priority, even amid the global coronavirus pandemic. In that case you should still favor allowing medical humanitarian aid into Iran, because blocking it actually makes your aim to change Iran’s government more unlikely, and also risks a larger cataclysm in the Mideast. So the Trump administration, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and its allies in Israel, the pro-Israel lobby here in the U.S., and Saudi Arabia, should change their harsh policy, because their cruelty is not just immoral, it is also stupid.

Iran is one of the Covid-19 epicenters, with an estimated 1800 deaths so far. Estimates are that the disease could eventually kill up to 3.5 million Iranians. Mike Pompeo is lying when he says there is no obstacle to humanitarian aid; his statement, although narrowly accurate, is belied by the fact that sanctions prevent Iran from using the international banking system to pay for medicines and other supplies. What’s more, the U.S. is apparently moving to veto Iran’s request for an emergency $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Humanitarian appeals to the Trump administration will continue to fail. It’s time for hard-headed realism. The regime-change advocates apparently think that if they squeeze Iran enough, the Iranian people will turn against the clerical regime. 

That is dangerous thinking, even worse than the terrible U.S. miscalculations that led to the American invasion of Iraq 17 years ago. It is true that the ongoing crisis in Iran could eventually change a government that is by all accounts losing what was left of its popularity. So let’s say Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime does collapse. What do Mike Pompeo and Benjamin Netanyahu think will happen next? Do they really expect that the clerical government would be replaced by a subservient puppet regime that does whatever the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia want? Especially after the U.S. and the others blocked medical aid — and 3.5 million Iranians died?

The Iran regime-change advocates do not understand the power of nationalism. You can vigorously oppose whatever government rules over you at the moment, but most people will join together and resist if they fear their country is going to be attacked, occupied, or otherwise humiliated. Iraq is only a recent example. Resistance to the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation started quickly there, even among Iraqis who had hated the Saddam Hussein regime.

For another example, let’s go back to 1914, to Germany and other European nations on the eve of World War 1. The Social Democrats were the largest political party in the German Reichstag, and like left-wing parties elsewhere in Europe they swore they would never vote for war against their working class comrades in other nations. But they all got caught up in the nationalist fever. Konrad Haenisch, a German left radical, famously described how he was finally able to “join with a full heart” and “a clean conscience” in singing Deutschland uber alles after he and the other Socialists voted for the Kaiser’s military budget. By the time the war ended four years later, more than 20 million people had died.

The Soviet Union after Hitler’s 1941 invasion is yet another example. Plenty of Soviets had plenty of reasons to hate Joseph Stalin, and some did collaborate with the Germans, but the majority successfully defended their country in what they still call the “Great Patriotic War.”

Iran has a population of 81 million (more than twice Iraq’s 38 million), pride in its nationality and culture, and an army whose senior commanders have experience successfully defending their country from Saddam Hussein’s 1980 (U.S.-backed) invasion. The outpouring of anger and patriotism at the funeral for General Qasem Soleimani after the U.S. assassinated him in January is another sign of that nationalist pride. Iran has responded to years of economic sanctions by apparently becoming self-sufficient in many goods. Teheran has allies across the Mideast (sometimes inaccurately dismissed as “proxies). The realist military affairs website War on the Rocks actually says that “the balance of effective force” in the region “has tipped over the past five years decisively toward Iran.”

Have Mike Pompeo and Benjamin Netanyahu forgotten the daring drone attacks last September 14, precise warning shots that hit one of Saudi Arabia’s giant oil processing facilities, which were either launched by Iran itself or by its Houthi allies from Yemen? Teheran proved it may well have the capability to bring Saudi oil exports to a standstill, which would be another blow to a tottering world economy. 

From afar, we can hope the Iranian people transform their government — not to suit the United States, or Israel, or Saudi Arabia, but to respond to their own needs for justice and freedom. But continuing to try and force change on them may lead to an even larger Mideast tragedy than we’ve already seen.