When it comes to saving American lives, sanctions are not an obstacle to the provision of life-saving medical equipment. Ramping up sanctions on struggling Iran is okay however – which goes to show the US price tag on human life.
It was a sight that warmed the heart of even the most cynical American opponent of Vladimir Putin’s Russia – a giant An-124 aircraft, loaded with boxes of desperately needed medical supplies, being offloaded at JFK Airport. When President Trump spoke on the phone with his Russian counterpart on March 31, he mentioned America’s need for life-saving medical supplies, including ventilators and personal protective equipment. Two days later the An-124 arrived in New York.
As the aircraft was being unloaded, however, it became clear that at least some of the equipment being offloaded had been delivered in violation of existing US sanctions. Boxes clearly marked as containing Aventa-M ventilators, produced by the Ural Instrument Engineering Plant (UPZ), could be seen. For weeks now President Trump has made an issue about the need for ventilators in the US to provide life-saving care for stricken Americans.
There was just one problem – the manufacturer of the Aventa-M, UPZ, is a subsidiary of Concern Radio-Electronic Technologies (KRET) which, along with its parent holding company ROSTEC, has been under US sanctions since 2014. Complicating matters further is the fact that the shipment of medical supplies was paid in part by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), a Russian sovereign wealth fund which, like ROSTEC, was placed on the US lending blacklist in 2014 following Russia’s intervention in Crimea. Half of the Russian aid shipment was paid for by the US State Department, and the other half by RDIF.
According to a State Department spokesperson, the sanctions against RDIF do not apply to purchases of medical equipment. KRET, however, is in the strictest SDN (Specially Designated Persons) sanctions list, which means US citizens and permanent residents are prohibited from doing business with it. So while the letter of the sanctions may not have been violated, the spirit certainly has been.
One only need talk to the embattled Governor of New York State Andrew Cuomo to understand the difficulty in trying to purchase much-needed medical equipment during a global pandemic where everyone else is trying to do the same. New York has been competing with several other states to purchase much-needed ventilators from China. “It’s like being on eBay”, Cuomo recently told the press, with 50 states bidding against one another, driving the price up. The issue became even more complicated when the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, entered the bidding war. “They big-footed us”, Cuomo said, driving the price per ventilator up to $25,000. “We’re going broke.”
Cuomo estimates that New York will need upwards of 40,000 ventilators to be able to handle the influx of stricken patients when the outbreak hits its peak. At the moment, New York has 17,000 ventilators available – including 2,500 on order from China – and Cuomo doesn’t expect any more. “We’re on our own.” Plans are in place to begin imposing a triage system to prioritize ventilator availability if and when the current stockpile is exhausted. These plans include the issuance of an emergency waiver that permits health care providers to take a patient off a ventilator to make it available for another patient deemed to be more “viable” – that is, who has a greater expectation of surviving the disease.
Cuomo’s predicament is being played out around the world, in places like Italy, Spain – and Iran, where the outbreak of coronavirus has hit particularly hard. The difference, however, is that while the US, Italy and Spain are able to scour the global market in search of life-saving medical supplies, Iran is not. US sanctions targeting the Iranian financial system have made it virtually impossible for Iran to pay for humanitarian supplies needed to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
As bad as it is for Governor Cuomo, at least he can enter a bidding war for medical supplies. Iran can’t even get its foot in the door, and it is costing lives. Making matters worse, at a time when the international community is pleading for the US to ease sanctions so Iran can better cope with an outbreak that is taking a life every 10 minutes, the US instead doubled down, further tightening its death grip on the Iranian economy.
The global coronavirus pandemic will eventually end, and when it does there will be an accounting for how nations behaved. Nations like Russia and China have been repeatedly vilified in the US media for any number of reasons – even the Russian aid shipment containing the sanctioned ventilators has been dismissed as a “propaganda ploy.” What, then, do you call the US’ blatant disregard for select human lives?
The callous indifference displayed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials to the suffering of the Iranian people by increasing sanctions at a time when the situation cries out for them to be lifted in order to save lives, when contrasted to the ease in which US sanctions on Russia are ignored when life-saving medical equipment is needed, drives home the point that, as far as the US is concerned, human life only matters when it is an American one. That might play well among American voters (it shouldn’t), but for the rest of the world it is a clear sign that hypocrisy, not humanitarianism, is the word that will define the US going forward.
* Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Iran Daily.