Bloomberg | Bobby Ghosh | March 13, 2020
Iranians need assistance in the fight against coronavirus, but their government can’t be trusted with money.
Talk about theocratic temerity. The regime in Tehran is calling on the International Monetary Fund to “stand on the right side of history” by giving Iran $5 billion to fight the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the first time the Islamic Republic has sought financial aid from the multilateral institution. (The last time Iran asked was 20 years before the 1979 revolution.)
For the international community — and for the U.S., which has effective veto power on IMF decisions — this presents a quandary: The Iranian people definitely need the help, but their leaders can’t be trusted with the money.
The Islamic Republic is the third-worst hit country after China and Italy, with 429 people dead. The regime has manifestly failed to manage the crisis. In the first phase, the leadership lied about the extent of the outbreak, and made a series of decisions that only aggravated the contagion.
Now, Iran’s medical system is overwhelmed, and its population may be more vulnerable than those of other virus-hit countries. And its porous borders with countries in the Middle East and Central Asia endanger the entire neighborhood.
Clearly, the world can’t stand by while Iran suffers. But it’s not at all clear that giving the regime $5 billion will mitigate these problems.
For one thing, the Iranians continue to dissimulate about the crisis: everything, from statistical logic to satellite images of massive grave sites, suggests it is worse than Tehran is prepared to admit. Although several well-known political and religious figures have contracted the virus, there remains a remarkable lack of seriousness on the subject among the leadership. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claims the virus is a biological weapon aimed at the Islamic Republic.
Others in the Iranian government blame the contagion on the standard dog-ate-my-homework excuse for all regime failings: American economic sanctions. This is nonsense. It was President Hassan Rouhani, not Donald Trump, who prevented authorities from locking down the city of Qom when the outbreak first occurred there. No American restrictions required Iranian airlines to keep operating flights to and from China long after other countries had stopped doing so. And while the Trump administration may be underplaying the coronavirus scare in the U.S., it did not compel Iranian hospitals to conceal data.
It’s worth remembering that the regime hasn’t allowed the economic sanctions to stop its support of the genocidal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which runs into billions of dollars. Nor is Tehran too hard-up to keep its many proxy militias and terrorist groups across the Middle East in cigarettes and rockets, to the tune of $16 billion.
Given the regime’s well-established propensities, there is reason to fear that large proportions of any financial aid to fight the virus will either be diverted to the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas, or line the commodious pockets of klepto-theocrats like Khamenei.
The solution, then, is to give the regime all manner of help, without giving it any money directly.
First, any assistance should be conditional on Iran allowing multilateral agencies such as the World Health Organization take charge of the fight against the virus. Having badly bungled its own efforts, it can hardly argue that Iranians should be in charge.
The IMF should then create, with American blessings, a $5 billion fund, strictly for use by these multilateral agencies. The money can pay for medical equipment and supplies, and expenses linked to any non-Iranian personnel required for the effort.
Tehran should keep paying for its own medical staff. It can also use the recently-opened Swiss banking channel to import additional humanitarian supplies as necessary.
This arrangement may be the best way to get help to Iranians without enabling the worst instincts of their leaders. There may still be some room for the regime to misuse non-cash assistance — we should not be surprised to discover Hezbollah flogging ventilators on the black market, for instance. But at least, the IMF will be able to argue, in good faith, that it is “on the right side of history.”