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The US should assist Iran, not add pressure while it's vulnerable

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Ambassador Christopher Hill

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This op-ed was originally published on The Hill.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has called for an immediate ceasefire in conflicts around the world, declaring that “it is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.” Guterres was not suggesting that he or anyone can put to rest the underlying reasons for conflict around the world. He was making an appeal to people’s conscience. It will not be the first time that the poignant words of a U.N. secretary general will go largely unnoticed.  

One country, however, that might consider hitting the pause button is the United States with its relentless pressure on Iran. In the past two weeks, as coronavirus cases have begun to spike — making the United States the third most infected country behind China and Italy — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took renewed aim at Iran, a country grieving the deaths of more than 2,000 of its citizens, and advocated escalating military action against Iran. Pompeo was urging a tougher response to Shia militia attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, which in recent days took the lives of two U.S. service members.  Of course, the U.S. already had appropriately attacked the Shia groups, killing several, but unfortunately including some Iraqi soldiers not engaged in the attacks on the U.S. base.  

What is notable about Pompeo’s conviction that the U.S. needs to increase pressure against Iran — a view shared by national security advisor Robert O’Brien — is that the U.S. military leadership opposed taking action against Iran, pointing out that there was no clear evidence to support the proposition that the Iranians had a hand in the Shia attacks.

More notable, however, was the fact, revealed in a New York Times piece, that Pompeo suggested Iran’s leaders would be more susceptible to U.S. pressure while battling the devastation wrought by the coronavirus. In effect, Pompeo would use a pandemic as an ally to pressure Iran. 

Iran’s leadership has been far from exemplary in its handling of the coronavirus, and there is much to disapprove of and to stand against regarding Iran. But Iran’s people are nonetheless victims of this plague. Early in the crisis, in February, Iranian deputy health minister and head of the counter-coronavirus task force, Iraj Harirchi, appeared on television to discuss the government’s handling of the virus. He began to perspire profusely, wiping his brow repeatedly while standing on the stage. It became a popular YouTube video, with hundreds of thousands of views, because several days later he died of the virus, leaving a widow and children. 

That means we were watching a man about to die. Several other senior Iranian officials also have died, as have more than 2,000 other Iranians, many from its most vulnerable populations. Most of these people are in no way responsible for Iran’s foreign policies, its support for Shia militia groups in Iraq or in Syria, or for any nuclear activities. Yet Pompeo considers COVID-19 as a vulnerability that the U.S. could exploit for its own ends. 

Perhaps this is getting a little out of hand. This is not an argument often heard from diplomats — that out of chaos can come opportunity. There are many problems between the United States and Iran that, no matter the chaos, will not simply melt away. But there should be a serious effort to include Iran in any U.S. efforts to help mitigate the virus throughout the world. We recently learned from the North Koreans that President Trump offered U.S. assistance for their efforts to combat the virus, even though Pyongyang has not even acknowledged a single case. 

If nobody else heeds the words of the U.N. secretary general, perhaps the U.S. could offer a “ceasefire” to Iran, in the name of humanity, by relaxing sanctions and looking for ways to help that country.