With Iran Ravaged by Virus, U.S. Pressured to Ease Sanctions
(Bloomberg) -- The devastation of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran is raising pressure on the U.S. to ease sanctions on the Islamic Republic. So far, the Trump administration isn’t budging.
Iran has reported more than 1,800 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic and its leaders and some aid groups say America’s crushing “maximum pressure” campaign against it is worsening a humanitarian disaster. The U.S. says it stands ready to help Iran with the virus while simultaneously blaming the growing crisis on the country’s mismanagement.
“U.S. sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s point person on Iran issues, said in an interview. “The ayatollah has vast resources at his personal disposal. We have broad exemptions that allow for the sale of medicines and medical devices by U.S. persons or from the United States to Iran.”
Yet finding companies and banks that are willing to navigate U.S. rules in an effort to sell to Iran but sidestep punishing American sanctions is extremely difficult since the Trump administration began ratcheting up pressure in 2018. That makes it even harder to get purely humanitarian goods into the country, said Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
“These exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of U.S. and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods,” said Sepehri Far. “We saw letters by banks and companies refusing to conduct humanitarian trade with Iran.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday dismissed U.S. overtures as dishonest, and he called the Trump administration “terrorists in the true sense of the word” for subjecting his country to relentless sanctions while expressing an interest in helping. He likened the U.S.’s gesture to offering a single glass of muddy water while it bars the access of Iranian people to a fresh well.
Read more: Iran’s Describes ‘Difficult Year’ of Sanctions, Virus
Jarrett Blanc, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation under President Barack Obama, said that previous U.S. administrations would typically send officials to Europe and Asia to help ease the path to humanitarian aid by clarifying how the exemptions work.
“The U.S. has to do a lot of work to make sure institutions understand it’s safe, otherwise no one wants to touch it,” Blanc said, while adding that he doesn’t think U.S. sanctions are to blame for the growing outbreak in Iran. “This administration has done the opposite by scaring off humanitarian aid. The messaging they’re sending is that there’s no way you can do the proper due diligence for something like this.”
President Donald Trump on Sunday suggested his offers for assistance to Iran -- as well as North Korea -- to combat the virus are genuine, saying “Iran is really going through a difficult period with respect to this.”
Yet some members of the Trump administration have speculated in private that with all the challenges Iran faces -- the sanctions, a teetering economy, disputed elections and animosity over the violent suppression of protests -- the coronavirus epidemic might be the thing that pushes the regime from power at last.
Even as the outbreak has spread in Iran, the U.S. has continued to impose more restrictions, targeting a group of companies involved in the petrochemical trade and a handful of nuclear scientists in successive measures this month. The Trump administration says its sanctions are aimed at pressuring Iran’s leadership into abandoning its nuclear program, ending support for groups in the region such as Hezbollah and halting the development of ballistic missiles.
China and Russia -- partners in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump abandoned -- have stepped up calls for the U.S. to relax its sanctions. European countries are also increasingly helping Iran where they can.
On Monday the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, urged an acceleration of humanitarian aid for Iran and said 20 million euros ($21.5 million) of aid had been earmarked to be sent to the Islamic Republic over the coming weeks.
He told organizations and countries that are keen to send relief they should not be put-off from doing so by U.S. sanctions. Those comments follow a March 2 pledge by Britain, France and Germany to send 5 million euros to help Iran’s coronavirus efforts. Europeans are increasingly frustrated and at times incensed by the U.S. stance amid the crisis, a Western diplomat in Tehran said.
“Unlawful US sanctions drained Iran’s economic resources, impairing ability to fight #COVID19,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted last week. “Join the growing global campaign to disregard US sanctions on Iran.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan also urged the U.S. to lift sanctions after his country’s coronavirus cases surged when Pakistani pilgrims returned from Iran last week. The two nations share a long land border.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. was at odds with other world powers, who disagreed with the president’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimpose sanctions.
The U.K. has quietly prodded the Trump administration to ease sanctions because of the crisis, the Guardian reported, without saying where it obtained the information. On March 17, Iran granted temporary release to British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been in jail in Tehran since 2016.
On Saturday, a French scholar detained in Tehran was released after he showed signs of the coronavirus, while an Iranian engineer held in France and wanted by the U.S. was released by authorities there. The apparent prisoner exchange was denounced by the U.S., which had sought the Iranian engineer’s extradition.
“There’s an ongoing divide between Americans and Europeans, and I don’t think this situation will do anything to bridge that gap,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East & North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There is growing frustration and potentially outrage that Americans won’t lower the barriers to get assistance into Iran and that they won’t let this be a bridge to build much- needed trust.”
Humanitarian organizations, unwilling to pick a public fight with a top contributor, are quietly trying to get supplies into Iran despite U.S. restrictions.
“We want to avoid politicization of these events,” Michael Ryan, chief executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergency program, told reporters last week, He said the goal is to ensure that “Iran has access to the markets it needs” in order to “free up the necessary resources and to free up and provide the necessary assurances to companies and others.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed “to all governments to facilitate and support Iran in combating the Coronavirus,” according to Stephane Dujarric, his spokesman. He added that Iran is receiving support from WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations country team in Iran.
Iranians say that their economy is weak and unable to cope with the humanitarian toll because of the U.S. sanctions. Last week, Iran turned to the International Monetary Fund for the first time since the 1960s for aid, though Ali Vaez, the Crisis Group’s Iran project director, said the U.S. may try to block the IMF loan in order to keep up the pressure on the regime.
“Countries like Italy and South Korea, who were not hampered by sanctions, found it difficult to contain and fight the outbreak,” he said. “Iran is now fighting it, albeit belatedly, with one hand tied behind its back by sanctions. Its failures, partly due to sanctions, will affect everyone else in the region and beyond.”
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