Middle East Online

Iran squeezed by US sanctions amid coronavirus pandemic

Iran’s Mission to the United Nations is urging the international community to call on the United States to lift sanctions against the country immediately so it can import medicine and medical equipment desperately needed to fight the coronavirus.

But the United States, which has imposed unilateral sanctions on Tehran ever since the Trump administration withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, sent Tehran a blunt message this week by ramping up sanctions on the Middle Eastern nation that has been one of the worst hit countries in the world during the coronavirus pandemic.

The US has so far given no sign that the spread of the coronavirus may cause it to consider lifting sanctions that are choking off Iran’s oil revenues and isolating its economy, as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign to curb Iran’s nuclear, missile and regional activities.

The Trump administration has gone the opposite route, blacklisting five companies based in the United Arab Emirates, three in mainland China, three in Hong Kong and one in South Africa for trade in Iran’s petrochemicals.

In response, Iran’s UN Mission said in a statement late Thursday that “the inhuman and unlawful” US sanctions are hampering efforts to prevent further spread of COVID-19 to other nations and are harming the health and lives of Iranians.

“In other words, while the US is trying to curb the virus internally, it is helping the spread of virus externally by undermining the professional capabilities of certain affected countries who try to combat its pandemic,” the mission said.

Iran is the Middle Eastern nation worst hit by coronavirus, with its death toll climbing to 1,433 and one person dying from it every 10 minutes and 50 becoming infected every hour, according to the Iranian health ministry. The scale of the outbreak in Iran has had wide-reaching repercussions, with 9 out of 10 cases throughout the Middle East region being linked to the Islamic Republic. Fears remain that despite the sobering numbers, the Iranian regime may still be under-reporting its cases after facing criticism for its subpar handling of the crisis.

But Iran’s UN mission continued on to cast the blame fully on Washington. It called the US sanctions “tantamount to crimes against humanity,” saying they “make it virtually impossible for Iranians to import needed medicine and medical equipment.”

It said a special mechanism allowing Iran to import medicine is very difficult to use because of sanctions-related “impediments” including extreme difficulty for Iran to use its financial resources abroad.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has disputed that version of the situation, claiming that the finances being choked off were being used to fund militant proxy groups throughout the Middle East.

“Since 2012, the Iranian regime has spent over $16 billion to support terrorist groups,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter. “They should support the needs of the Iranian people instead.”

“Our policy of maximum pressure on the regime continues,” Brian Hook, the US Special Representative for Iranian Affairs, told reporters. “US sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran.”

Hook also blamed Iran’s leadership for its coronavirus woes, saying that Iran “spends billions on terrorism and foreign wars” and that if it spent one tenth of this “on a better health care system, the Iranian people would have been much better off.”

‘No relief’

Mark Dubowitz, an Iran hawk with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies policy group, told Reuters news agency that Washington could send medical goods to Iran via private groups but should not ease sanctions.

“At the very time Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq are killing Americans and Brits and others, this would be exactly the wrong time to be providing any kind of economic relief to the regime,” he said, referring to last week’s attack on a military camp in Iraq, by an Iran-backed paramilitary group, that killed one British and two US personnel.

“We should be sending medical supplies directly to Iranians through non-governmental organizations and bypass the regime.”

China and Russia, allies of Iran, have also echoed Tehran’s call for the United States to give Iran sanctions relief for humanitarian reasons. Like Dubowitz, however, most US officials, foreign diplomats and analysts saw no signs that the Trump administration would consider a lifting of sanctions without being given some sort of incentive by Iran to do so.

“While Iran is an epicenter of this virus outbreak and facing true economic catastrophe … there will be no relief on sanctions,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg of the Center for a New American Security think tank.

Others see signs that growing discontent over economic hardship, combined with the coronavirus outbreak’s impact, could force Iran to choose diplomacy over confrontation with the United States. Unlike in his usual fiery speeches, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei refrained from attacking Iran’s longtime foe in an address to the nation on state television for the Persian New Year.

“Iran benefited from America’s sanctions. It made us self-sufficient in all areas,” Khamenei said.

In what may have been a gesture of good faith to Washington, Tehran has also granted a medical furlough to US Navy veteran Michael White, who has been in prison since his arrest in 2018. His release is conditioned on him staying in Iran.

White was sentenced to at least 10 years in prison on charges of insulting Khamenei and posting anti-establishment remarks on social media under a pseudonym. It is not clear exactly how many American prisoners Iran may hold, but Washington has warned Tehran that it would hold the clerical rulers directly responsible for any American deaths since the outbreak has infected the Islamic Republic.

Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution think tank said Iran allowing White or other detained US citizens to fly home might appeal to Trump.

“I still don’t believe this administration wants to provide a lot of leeway to the Iranian authorities but that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t be looking for every opportunity to” get medical supplies into Iran, she said.

The outbreak in Iran was likely to spread as Iranians travel for the Nowruz new year’s celebration, she added, saying this could hurt US security partners across the region.

“Iran is Italy, only on steroids,” Maloney said, alluding to the outbreak in Italy, whose coronavirus death toll on Thursday overtook that of China, where the virus emerged. Source