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March 16, 2020

President Trump Should Ease Sanctions on Iran Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

Right now, Iran is experiencing perhaps the worst outbreak of the coronavirus outside of China in the world. Over 800 have died, with more than 14,000 confirmed cases in the country. This major outbreak was due to two factors: government negligence in responding to the threat, and crushing U.S. sanctions that have greatly harmed Iran’s public health sector.

U.S. sanctions have made it infinitely more difficult for Iran’s medical industry to cope with the crisis. The U.S. can’t control the Iranian government’s inept and negligent response to the crisis. But it can make sure that U.S. sanctions do not continue to stand in the way of recovery in Iran. The rampant spread of the virus in Iran is not only an Iranian issue, but a global one. We have seen Iran become the epicenter of the spread of the disease throughout the Middle East, creating a gateway for the virus from Asia to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Given the nature of the pandemic, the issues emanating from Iran, exacerbated by U.S. sanctions, affect the whole region and the world.

Below is a synopsis of a few key articles that describe the issues, as well as ways the Trump administration and Congress can aid Iran’s fight against the disease.


What You Need to Know

Trump banning travel to Europe will do nothing to halt coronavirus. Lifting sanctions on Iran will 
Negar Mortazavi, The Independent

  • “Dr Minoo Mohraz, a prominent specialist in infectious diseases in Iran, has said Iran was initially behind on detecting coronavirus cases due to a lack of diagnosis test kits. She said European companies would not sell the kits to Iran in fear of US sanctions — eventually, the World Health Organization stepped in and sent test kits directly.”
  • “Previous US administrations, Democratic and Republican, responded to humanitarian crises more rigorously. In 2004, when a devastating earthquake killed thousands of people in the city of Bam in Iran, then-President George Bush lifted sanctions for a limited period so that international aid could get into the country. A similar situation happened in 2012, when an earthquake hit northern Iran. At that time, President Obama suspended sanctions for a few months to allow aid to be sent in.”

Iran’s Fight Against Coronavirus Pandemic
Olivier Vandecasteele, Relief International’s Country Director for Iran

  • “Health professionals [in Iran] are working almost nonstop. They need all our support. One of the problems for international aid has been to clarify the legal issues related to sanctions to ensure that medical supplies and medicines can be brought into Iran. This slowed down the health response in the first weeks of the outbreak.” 

Doctors Inside Iran Believe Coronavirus Is More Serious Than Reported, and Getting Worse
Tara Kangarlou, Time

  • “Medical workers also said that their equipment is badly outdated, a situation made worse by the U.S. sanctions on the Iranian economy. Although the U.S. administration says “humanitarian and medical needs” are exempt from sanctions, few European companies dare to do business in Iran in fear of potential retribution from the U.S. Moreover, sanctions on Iranian banks make it highly complicated to carry out transactions with Europe.”
  • “One Iranian entrepreneur who imports and sells medical respiratory equipment told TIME that it takes three times longer to make a simple banking transaction with Europe under the newly imposed sanctions. “In Iran…everything we want to do with Europe is done with delay. We have had ICU bed shortages for a while and now we can’t buy the number we need for this corona outbreak in a timely way. He adds, there is also a shortage of “mechanical ventilators, non-invasive ventilators, and HFNC (high flow nasal cannula)” all of which his company is having a hard time purchasing due to sanctions over Iran’s banking system.”

What the U.S. Can Do

While the U.S. can’t control the Iranian government’s negligent response to the crisis, it can do everything possible to ensure that U.S. sanctions do not contribute to the spread of a global pandemic. The Trump administration appears to have recognized this fact, but has only taken limited steps in response:  

  • The Trump administration exempted humanitarian trade involving the Central Bank of Iran, partially reversing a disastrous decision in September that deliberately targeted humanitarian trade with Iran.
  • The Trump administration has published a new, but vague, FAQ on Coronavirus relief involving Iran.
  • The Trump administration has offered to send aid directly to Iran, though made it contingent on Iran’s acceptance – which they have rejected, as expected.
  • Sec. Pompeo also suggested this week that any aid to Iran should be contingent on the release of political prisoners held in the country. While Iran can and should release prisoners unjustly held, issuing unilateral demands in the absence of any diplomatic relations risks making the situation worse.

Given these half measures and the shared risks of the Coronavirus pandemic, Congress should press the administration to consider some or all of the following:

  • A 90 day suspension of most major sanctions on Iran: This would include those targeting Iran’s financial sector and oil exports, which could be extended if the crisis continues. 
    • Previous administrations have enacted similar policies in times of humanitarian crisis. This would be a powerful humanitarian gesture that would resolve continued concerns of sanctions choking off sales of medical devices and medicine, and help eighty million Iranians simultaneously being crushed between government negligence and U.S. sanctions.
    • It could also open the door to de-escalatory measures involving the nuclear stand-off, escalating regional tensions and continued imprisonment of Americans in Iran.
  • If a suspension is off the table, there are other more limited steps that could be taken, including:
    • A clear general license exempting specific medical goods: This license would aid in the donation or sale of testing kits, respiratory devices and medicine, all of which would aid relief efforts.
    • Proactive efforts to establish new financial channels for Iran to pay for humanitarian goods. 
    • Easing sanctions barring tech companies like Google and Amazon from delivering services to the Iranian people, which inhibits the spread of public information on how to combat the virus.
    • Direct delivery of aid for the Iranian people through a third party country that is not contingent on the Iranian government’s public acceptance of aid. 

The most impactful step the administration could take is to ease all sanctions on Iran for 90 days, with the possibility of renewal. Keeping sanctions on Iran that collapse the entire Iranian economy is doubly cruel as Iranians struggle to stay alive during a pandemic. Easing sanctions would be a powerful humanitarian step, and restore badly needed goodwill between the American and Iranian people.

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