Lawmakers Ask Trump To Suspend Sanctions To Help Iran Fight Coronavirus

The Trump administration should suspend sweeping U.S. sanctions on Iran that are hindering the country’s response to its massive coronavirus outbreak, more than 30 lawmakers said in a letter to top officials on Tuesday.

The sanctions could be costing lives in Iran, which is enduring one of the largest flare-ups of the pandemic in the world. Thus far, more than 2,750 Iranians have succumbed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and more than 40,000 have been infected, according to tracking by Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University. At least 50 Iranian medics have died.

Amind the crisis, U.S. sanctions are reducing Tehran’s access to protective gear for health care workers and equipment like respirators, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned last week. 

The congressional letter, shared with HuffPost ahead of its public release, is addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Notable signatories include Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

“Allowing this crisis to become more dire in Iran threatens significant harm not only to the people of Iran but also to people in the United States and around the world,” the letter says.

Under a “maximum pressure” campaign that President Donald Trump began nearly two years ago, he has placed increasing sanctions on the Islamic Republic after withdrawing the U.S. from a 2015 international agreement that promised Iran access to global markets in exchange for limits on its nuclear development. Such strict measures are not appropriate amid a pandemic, lawmakers argue. 

U.S. sanctions restrict Iran’s ability to earn foreign currency by selling oil abroad and to trade with international firms, limiting its imports of medicine and materials it needs to produce drugs domestically. Further hurting the nation’s health infrastructure, Trump’s Treasury Department has slashed the number of licenses provided to companies exporting specialized medical equipment to Iran. 

The U.S. preserved loopholes for food and medical trade with Iran and acknowledged its need by offering aid, American officials have noted, but Iran’s Supreme Leader rejected the offer. Last month, Trump authorized a new channel for humanitarian exports to the country that allows companies to seek approval for deals from the U.S. and Swiss governments without fear of incurring American penalties. 

But producers of vital supplies are still nervous about fines, as American authorities continue to target violators of the sanctions and impose new ones, and are reluctant to deal with byzantine U.S. regulations that cover broad swathes of the Iranian economy, from banks to parts of the military. Washington’s measures have made interactions with the country “equivalent to walking through a compliance minefield,” Mohsen Zarkash, an attorney at the Price Benowitz law firm, told The Washington Post.

The letter from lawmakers noted that President George W. Bush’s administration “eased sanctions and delivered aid to Iran following a deadly earthquake near Bam in 2003. Our many disputes with the government of Iran or others should not stand in the way of actions that can materially help innocent people weather a pandemic.”

“Sanctions relief that should be considered are those that encompass major sectors of the Iranian economy, including those impacting civilian industries, Iran’s banking sector and exports of oil, and should last for at least as long as health experts believe the crisis will continue,” the lawmakers wrote.

France, Britain, Germany, China and the World Health Organization have given Iran support to tackle the pandemic, and Iranian officials who first downplayed the risks of COVID-19 over concerns for their image and the nation’s economy appear to be ramping up their fight against the virus. Iranian authorities only recently closed non-essential businesses and curtailed travel ― suggesting it will be some time before those measures, proven elsewhere to limit the spread of the pandemic, have an effect. 

A change of course by the U.S. could have a big impact, boosting medical trade through normal channels rather than in the form of intermittent emergency support. The new call from Congress bolsters a campaign against the sanctions by progressive activist groups like Win Without War. It builds on a separate message last week from a group of 11 senators that asked Trump to temporarily lift some sanctions on Iran and Venezuela.

For now, the Trump administration is internally divided on its Iran policy. Mnuchin recently won waivers for sanctions on nuclear nonproliferation work, arguing Washington should not appear overly tough on Iran at present. And high-ranking military officials are warning against a plan to battle Iran-aligned forces in Iraq that could destabilize that country and the campaign against vestiges of the so-called Islamic State.

Pompeo and conservative hardliners, however, continue to swipe at Tehran and try to isolate it internationally, claiming their narrative will appeal to Iranians dissatisfied with their repressive government. “The Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice,” Pompeo said earlier this month, using the controversial moniker adopted by some for the coronavirus.

He piled on fresh criticism Tuesday during a press conference ahead of the news of the letter, condemning Iran’s support of groups that have attacked Americans and insisting the administration is not preventing humanitarian support.

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