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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/15/20

Iranian Women Squeezed By US Sanctions, COVID-19 and Their Government

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By Medea Benjamin and Sussan Tahmasebi


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Two years ago, on May 8, 2018, President Trump manufactured a crisis with Iran by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing brutal sanctions. This interview with Sussan Tahmasebi, director of FEMENA, an organization that supports women human rights defenders, reveals how the Trump administration's "maximum pressure campaign," along with the terrible spread of coronavirus in Iran, have impacted Iranian women.

Medea: How did the Iranian government first deal with the outbreak of coronavirus and why did it spread so fast, making Iran the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East?

Sussan: Just like here in the United States, people in Iran are really suffering from the inability of the government to act in a timely manner. When the virus first hit Iran, the government was slow to respond and did not warn the public in a timely manner. State and government officials wanted a strong showing for the marches on the anniversary of the Revolution in February and the Parliamentary elections in March, so it delayed warning the public. The nation was shocked when Iranians living in Qom started dying as a result of COVID19. The Member of Parliament from the religious city of Qom broke the silence and criticized state and government authorities for failing to warn the public and take appropriate action to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Medea: What was the original source of COVID19 in Iran?

Sussan: It is believed that initially the source of the virus was Chinese students living in the religious city of Qom, the first epicenter of the virus. Initial calls to quarantine the city were refused by religious leaders and dismissed by government officials. Efforts to stop travel between Iran and China were also not successful. In fact, over the past few months it has become painfully clear that because of the sanctions and the devastating economic situation of the country, Iran has become over reliant on China and as such is not in a position to limit its relationship. Even hints at limiting travel in the earlier days and later minor criticisms of how the Chinese have handled the spread of the virus have been swiftly rebutted by the Chinese ambassador in Iran, with Iranian authorities backtracking on statements.

Medea: How has this pandemic, together with sanctions, affected the economy?

Long before this pandemic, the Iranian economy has been hard hit by the sanctions, as well as corruption and mismanagement. The Obama sanctions implemented in 2010 were devastating for Iranians because they sanctioned Iran's central bank. Basically, this meant that Iran could have any financial transactions with any country, it could not transfer funds or receive funds. In essence, an entire nation is treated like terrorists.

The signed of the Nuclear Deal in 2015 offered some reprieve from the devastation of the sanctions, but the sanctions were never fully lifted. The imposition of even stronger sanctions by the Trump administration as part of its "maximum pressure campaign" has impacted poor and vulnerable communities even further. The rapid economic decline that has resulted from these sanctions has meant that Iranians have been getting poorer and poorer and the value of their currency has dropped with every round of sanctions.

So for some time now, poor and vulnerable communities have been suffering from poor diets and malnutrition, lack of access to health care due to financial constraints, and this has weakened their immune systems. A strong immune system is critical in fighting COVID19. One of the activists I talked to said something that really struck me. She said, "It isn't strange to me that so many Iranians have been getting sick and dying from coronavirus because by the time the virus hit, Iranians were already depleted in every aspect of life."

Medea: The administration claims that sanctions are targeting the Iranian rulers, not the people. How do you respond to that?

Sussan: While the administration claims that sanctions are targeting those in power, the sanctions really impact the ordinary people, especially women, children, minorities, refugees, the disabled and the sick. Sanctions have become a method of warfare, denying life-saving medicines to sick people, destroying livelihoods and plunging millions into poverty. The local currency, the rial, has lost over half its value. Most of those who have lost employment or who have suffered economically were already working in the economic margins. They were employed as day laborers or street peddlers, or providers of services. They were women-headed households, who despite low wages are responsible for entire families .

But the middle class is also suffering. Our friends who have businesses have had to shut them down. The middle class is being squeezed and the independent business sector is being decimated, while unaccountable, corrupt groups, who can evade sanctions because of their connection to those in power, grow wealthier and more powerful.

Medea: You started a feminist organization, FEMENA, and you work with Iranian women's groups. What's the status of that movement now?

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Medea Benjamin is the cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace and author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection. 

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