Coronavirus and the spirit of internationalism

Introduction

Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for emergency funding (it is for the first time since 1962 that Iran has sought IMF assistance) to fight the deadly Corona Virus outbreak (COVID19).

As of Saturday, March 14, 2020, Iran reported over 600 deaths (611) and over 12,000 cases arising out of the deadly virus. That makes Iran the third most affected country in the world after China and Italy. A number of prominent personalities, including the country’s Vice President (Eshaq Jahangari) and two other senior cabinet members, have contracted the virus.

On Wednesday, March 4, 2020, the IMF’s managing director, Kristilina Georgieva, stated that developing countries will be supported in their efforts to take on the Corona Virus through the Fund’s Rapid Financial Instrument. The IMF announced a $50 billion aid package with the aim of specifically assisting ‘low income’ and ‘emerging market’ economies. (On Monday, the World Bank had announced a $12 billion package to deal with the epidemic.)

Iran’s Central Bank chief, Abdolnaser Hemmati, said on Thursday that he had written to the IMF requesting $5 billion in emergency funding via the latter’s Rapid Financing Instrument. In a tweet on Thursday, the Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, urged the IMF to release this amount immediately. The Iranian Foreign Minister also said that Iran was facing a severe shortage of medicines and equipment. US sanctions on Iran, which have prevented it from selling oil or participating fully in the world’s financial ecosystem, have had a detrimental impact on the country’s economy. Iran, in a letter to the UN Secretary General Antonio Guerres, stated that US sanctions should be suspended keeping in mind the current crisis.

Iran’s apprehensions

Even if the IMF were to agree to releasing $5 billion for Iran, there are a number of obstacles that may result in Iran not being able to get the money from the IMF. First, the US is part of the IMF’s decision-making board (interestingly, in his tweet Zarif had stated that the IMF/IMF board should act responsibly) and even if the IMF agrees to disburse the amount, given the strains between Washington and Tehran it is quite possible that the US will veto such a move by the IMF. If Trump is willing to annoy US allies like the EU (on Wednesday, Trump took a decision to suspend flights from 26 Schengen countries to US, for a period of 30 days without consulting the EU), there is no reason why he will adopt a nuanced approach towards Iran.

Second, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has blacklisted Iran, which means that even if IMF agrees to provide the loan, banks and financial institutions can block such transactions.

Corona Virus is an opportunity for the US to exhibit statesmanship and maturity, and also lower tensions with Iran. While Trump has claimed to being open towards engaging with the Iranians, and seems to have changed his approach towards Tehran, he has not really exhibited much statesmanship in dealing with Tehran. Ever since the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleiman (a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) in a drone attack, in January 2020, ties went further downhill.

Opportunity for the US

This is an opportunity for the US to send a positive message to the international community, and to also distinguish between the Iranian public and its political class. China’s messaging with regard to helping the international community has been far better. On March 12, 2020, a team of Chinese doctors reached Italy (Italy, which is the most worst hit nation after China, had requested assistance from the latter). A number of Italian leaders have also criticised EU countries for being slow in reacting to Italy’s call for assistance.

Positive steps taken by China

What is also significant is that at a time when Washington and Beijing have been engaged in unnecessary mud-slinging with regard to the virus, with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dubbing the Corona Virus as ‘Wuhan Virus’, and a senior Chinese diplomat responding by calling it a ‘conspiracy’ by the US army, on Friday March 13, 2020, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma stated in a tweet that he would donate one million face masks and 500,000 corona virus testing kits to the US. Earlier, Jack Ma’s charitable foundation, and his China-based company’s foundation, the Alibaba Foundation, had already donated supplies to a number of countries including  Japan, Korea, Italy, Iran, and Spain.

Conclusion

In case, the US does not agree to provide immediate assistance to Iran, other countries should step in including US allies like the UK, EU member states, and Japan. It is also important for multilateral organizations to show their teeth and not allow petty politics to come in the way of the fight against COVID 19. The Corona Virus is a clear reiteration of the point that while there may be numerous problems with economic globalization, we live in a truly interconnected world however much we may try to obliterate this fact. Humanity should trump petty politics and bickering, and this is an opportunity to revive the true spirit of internationalism.