Iran is dealing with the dual challenges of a deadly pandemic and U.S. sanctions. Behind China and Italy, Iran has the third highest number of infections and the third highest number of deaths caused by COVID-19. As of this writing, of the 12,729 Iranians to have contracted the virus, 611 had lost their lives.

Miraculously, China has been able to almost completely defeat the virus, with the daily number of new cases down to the teens. Of course, this miracle was made possible thanks to central planning and a government not beholden to corporate interests. Unlike President Trump, China’s president Xi Jinping did not have to line up corporate CEOs to ask for their innovative help and thank them for allowing the government to set up testing stations in their parking lots at an undisclosed time in the future. Instead, the government used the collective resources of society to aggressively fight the spread of the disease through a collective, coordinated set of actions.

But Iran has not been nearly as successful. Daily life in Iran and the level of hardship is not unlike the well-publicized nightmare that the people of Italy are going through. Western coverage of the suffering of the Iranian people, however, is mostly devoted to spinning conspiracy theories about mass graves, speculating that Iran has tens of thousands of unreported cases and accusing the government of ineptitude and incompetence. To the extent that the coverage shows any sympathy to the people, it is in the context of their suffering under the government.

Strictly in terms of the numbers, Italy’s crisis is significantly worse than Iran’s. Despite having a population of 60 million, compared to Iran’s 80 million, Italy has almost twice as many total cases as Iran, and more than twice as many deaths. What makes Iran’s circumstances even graver, however, is that Iran has to deal with the Coronavirus crisis under debilitating U.S. sanctions. The European Union has already pledged billions to help Italy deal with the crisis. Iran, on the other hand, still has trouble purchasing the most basic goods under the sanctions. For the first time ever, Iran has asked the IMF for a $5 billion loan. But the Trump administration will likely block it.

Sanctions kill

It has been nearly two years since Trump illegally pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA, the agreement the Obama administration had signed with Iran, and re-imposed sanctions. The “maximum pressure” campaign is designed to cause enough death and suffering to destabilize Iran and ultimately bring about its overthrow.

It is widely acknowledged that Iran has one of the best medical systems in the region. In fact, medical tourism, people traveling to Iran to receive medical treatment, continues to be one of the few sources of currency for Iran. For a wide range of medical procedures, ranging from heart bypass surgeries and cancer treatment to plastic surgeries, Iran’s medical facilities offer high-level services.

Still, no matter how advanced a medical system, dealing with a crisis of the magnitude of a pandemic requires access to lots of medical supplies, from test kits and face masks to oxygen tanks, alcohol and other disinfectants, and many more.

Technically, medical supplies are exempted from the U.S. sanctions. In actual practice, as it has been widely publicized, the U.S. imposes such draconian penalties to any entities trading in Iran that few, if any, companies are willing to risk engaging in financial transactions with Iran. Even if the transaction purely involves medical supplies, the possibility of being subjected to fines or a long, expensive legal battle with the U.S. is prohibitive for governments and companies alike.

The example of tech giant Google is instructive in how far the sanctions extend. The Iranian government has created an official COVID-19 app, a tool to provide people with guidance on the COVID-19. The app could be downloaded by any Iranian who chose to do so. But, on March 10, Google removed the app from its Play Store. Google provided no explanation for its act. A malware investigator with ZDNET reviewed the app and “didn’t find anything particularly fishy in the app’s APK.” Whether Google removed the app at the behest of the Trump administration or on its own accord is secondary. The result is that Iranians were deprived of a tool that might help some people in effectively dealing with the disease.

It is not that sanctions are indifferent towards people dying. In fact, sanctions are there to cause death and misery, in the hopes of eventual regime change.

President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo have made offers to provide assistance to Iran. But, in reality, these are more PR tactics than genuine offers for help. As Iran’s President Rouhani responded, genuine humanitarian help would have been the suspension of sanctions. You can’t suffocate the people of a country and then genuinely ask them if they need help!

Not only is the U.S. not interested in helping Iran deal with this human tragedy, it has actually ratcheted up its propaganda campaign. As is often the case, the corporate media, an integral part of the imperialist establishment, is playing an important role in propagating the demonization campaign.

Propaganda campaign

BBC Farsi has done extensive programs claiming that the number of the dead are way higher than what the government is announcing. The BBC’s claims are not based on any facts or evidence, but mainly based on a pseudo-analysis, postulating that since a high number of government officials have died of the virus, the overall number of cases must be proportionately high.

There are rational explanations for this that do not involve a government conspiracy. Most government officials are in their 60s and 70s, age groups much more susceptible to the severe effects of COVID-19. During the8-year Iran-Iraq war, supplied chemical agents by the U.S. and others, Iraq widely used chemical weapons. Many current Iranian officials, veterans of the war, suffer from permanently damaged lungs from chemical exposure during the war, making them far less resistant to a virus that attacks the lungs.

Qom is where the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in Iran and where the disease has taken a disproportionate number of victims. Qom is the site of the second holiest Shiite site in Iran. Most of Iran’s seminaries are in this city and most clerics have spent years there. It is only about 75 miles South of Tehran. Being devoutly religious, many government officials and members of Majless (Parliament), both clerics and non-clerics, visit Qom regularly, some weekly or even more frequently. It can be expected, therefore, that, compared to the general public, a much higher percentage of the Islamic Republic officialdom would contract the virus as a result of exposure to the many infected people there.

Of course, the BBC, and other imperialist media outlets, do not engage in similar speculations about the accuracy of the numbers reported by most other governments around the world. Governments like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and other client states, where corrupt and criminal royal families exercise absolute control over all aspects of society, are at least as likely as Iran to give false reports on their numbers. But, of course, imperialist-friendly clients are never subjected to the level of “investigative journalism” that Iran is.

Mass graves?

The New York Times has published a satellite photo, showing what it claims to be a newly dug ditch that Iran intends to use as a mass grave in the cemetery near the city of Qom. The Times claims that the photos “confirm the worst fears” about the extent of the epidemic and the government’s subsequent cover-up. Significantly, the article itself specifies the date of the photo as Feb. 24, a time when the coronavirus had just started in Iran. According to government figures, at the time Iran had only suffered 12 fatalities. To bolster its claim, the Times quotes an Iranian legislator claiming that the government was covering up the deaths and that the real number of deaths was 50.

Mass graves are generally used in wars, in situations where it is not possible to give individual burials to large numbers of corpses while leaving the bodies un-buried would cause health hazards for the survivors. Whatever the number of fatalities in Qom, whether 12, 50, or somewhere in between, what purpose would mass graves serve? Why could the cemetery not simply dig 50 graves? Is digging the ground so hard that the government is using mass graves to be more efficient? What would the government tell the families of the people buried in mass graves? Would they just grab the bodies from the hospital and just tell the families that the patients had disappeared? And, by the way, in the nearly three weeks since, why has the New York Times not acquired subsequent photos showing the mass graves being filled with bodies, or already filled in? And why would Iran dig the mass graves in a cemetery with easy public access and not in a restricted military site? The Times’ “exposition” has been circulated around major media outlets and is treated more or less as fact.

If the photo is authentic, any number of guesses could be made as to the purpose of the digging, mass graves being one of the least plausible. If this photo were of a site in Israel or Saudi Arabia, there is no way that the Times would make such a huge leap and build so much on so little. But, when it comes to demonized countries on the crosshairs of Washington, the corporate media’s burden of proof is so low that mere speculation is more than enough.

Another propaganda line against Iran is that it has clearly mishandled efforts to fight the spread of the virus. This is accepted even by some liberal voices that express opposition to the sanctions and acknowledge how the sanctions hamper Iran’s effort to fight the pandemic.

Clearly, as in most similar cases, officials must have made many mistakes both at national and local levels. But whatever those errors may be, they pale in comparison to the U.S. government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. With weeks to prepare, the Trump administration has not even been able to make test kits available, much less use test results as a means of identifying, isolating and treating those infected.

Comparatively, Iran has done far more. Early in the process, Iran closed schools and universities, banned large gatherings including Friday prayers, banned casual traveling to tourist areas of the country, disinfected buses, trains and metros and even sprayed the streets, parks and other public places. It ramped up the availability of hospitals and clinics to deal with the patients. Nobody has been charged for testing or treatment. Whatever the cause of the spread of the virus, not a single person has avoided seeking medical care out of fear of the costs, or insurance coverage or co-pays or deductibles.

It is often stated by critics, external and internal, including members of parliament, that the government should take responsibility and answer for why it did not quarantine the city of Qom, where the first cases were identified. Whether or not such an action would have been feasible or effective at the time is beyond the expertise of this writer. It must be stated, however, that this is far from a clear and cut case of a botched reaction and a missed opportunity.

China successfully quarantined Wuhan and, given its most impressive mobilization, successfully prevented the spread of the virus. But it is unlikely that Iran had the capacity or the resources to carry out a similar campaign. The Chinese model has not been carried out in other places.

The first identified cases in the U.S. were at the the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, in King Country which includes Seattle. But Kirkland or King County were not quarantined. And this is not considered an outrageous failure on the part of the U.S. government. The first identified cases of the disease in any country are inevitably identified in one or two locations. It is not an established principle in the fight against contagious diseases that the cities in which the first infections occur must be quarantined, nor has that been a common practice among the now more than 152 countries and territories with recorded infections. Why is it, then, that the failure to quarantine Qom is proof of the incompetence of the Iranian government? Again, the answer lies in the fact that every corporate mouthpiece, every media outlet, every imperialist government and every imperialist-dominated NGO is, by default, oriented towards questioning, critiquing, and attacking every action taken by an independent government targeted for regime change.

Tasks of anti-imperialists

Anti-imperialist in the U.S. have the primary task of standing with the victims of imperialist aggression, particularly those of U.S. imperialism. Iran is victimized by the U.S. sanctions, sanctions that block the entire world from trading with Iran. U.S. sanctions are killing people in Iran, and they are designed to kill.

It is not our task to find problems in how a government under the crushing weight of the sanctions is managing a health crisis. Imperialist propaganda against Iran obviously do not seek to formulate an objective analysis of how a targeted government is managing a crisis. They are designed to further weaken that government and ultimately cause its collapse.

Anti-imperialists should unequivocally oppose sanctions and the imperialist drive for regime change. An objective evaluation of the Iranian government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has nothing to do with tossing about half-baked theories and accusations. We do not have to temper our opposition to sanctions with attacks on the Iranian leadership to gain credibility. In fact, we should not. It is up to the Iranian people to determine their fate, through whatever path they choose for their discourse.

End U.S. Sanctions on Iran!