U.S. Resists International Calls to Lift Sanctions on Iran as It Struggles to Fight Coronavirus

The United States is resisting easing sanctions on Iran during the global coronavirus pandemic, despite calls from the international community, including former U.S. government officials, to do so for humanitarian reasons.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran at a press briefing Tuesday, arguing the administration has "done remarkable work to deny the regime the resources they need to continue to carry out their terror campaign." The top U.S. diplomat hoped for a new Iranian government "with a change in outlook."

The briefing conference took place on the 40-year anniversary of Washington and Tehran severing relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted a pro-West monarchy and led to a 444-day hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Iran. The feud escalated in recent years after the U.S. imposed additional sanctions designed to pressure Iran politically, but critics said the economic implications have also hindered Iran's ability to respond to crises such as the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus outbreak has infected more than 64,000 people in Iran and killed nearly 4,000—among the highest fatality rates in the world. Officials there are demanding an end to sanctions that they argue has been delayed due to fear of being hit by punitive measures from the U.S.

On Monday, two dozen former U.S. and European officials also urged the Trump administration to adopt "targeted sanctions relief" in a statement organized by the European Leadership Network and The Iran Project.

"Like many Americans and Europeans, Iranians are also facing one of their country's darkest times in living memory. As the world grapples with COVID-19—the disease caused by the novel coronavirus—we must remember that an outbreak anywhere impacts people everywhere," the statement read. "In turn, reaching across borders to save lives is imperative for our own security and must override political differences among governments."

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Iran's Azadi (Freedom) Tower is lit up with messages accusing the U.S. of "economic terrorism" due to its ongoing sanctions amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Tehran, March 31. AFP/Getty Images

Signatories included former Secretary of State and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright, former Swedish Foreign Minister and Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Hans Blix and former NATO Secretary-General and Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes.

Immediate measures recommended by the group of national security leaders involved supplying the resources necessary to fight the coronavirus outbreak. Others included bolstering staffing and other resources at the Office of Foreign Assets Control to expedite licensing, issuing comfort letters to banks and companies concerned about conducting transactions with Iranian entities, offering regular updates on the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA) and supporting humanitarian trade through the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX).

The experts also recommended the U.S. make clear that countries granted exemptions to buy oil from Iran could use that money for humanitarian exports there, that Washington provides funding to the World Health Organization to assist Iran and that the Trump administration not interfere in the International Monetary Fund's debate on whether to grant Tehran's request for a $5 billion emergency financing.

One signatory, former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and ambassador to six different nations, Thomas Pickering, affirmed Monday during a press call: "There is no reason at this stage why the sanctions effort should interfere in a malign way with the people of Iran seeking to improve their health and deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is every reason in our view to support these particular approaches."

The State Department declined to comment when contacted by Newsweek. Later Monday, however, the State Department issued a fact sheet entitled "Iran's Sanctions Relief Scam" that warned that "Iran's slick foreign influence campaign to obtain sanctions relief is not intended for the relief or health of the Iranian people but to raise funds for its terror operations."

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A volunteer sprays disinfectant during the coronavirus pandemic on March 31, in Tehran. Iran has been battling the worst outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease in the region with over 64,500 reported cases and potentially many more not recorded. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

The State Department accuses the Islamic Republic of hoarding billions of dollars to devote to government salaries, military spending and support for partnered paramilitary groups abroad rather than the country's health sector or other vital services.

"The United States will continue to support the needs and aspirations of the Iranian people, who are the longest-suffering victims of the Iranian regime," the fact sheet stated, echoing Pompeo's previous promises that the Trump administration was acting in the best interest of Iran's population and would provide assistance during the pandemic.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has rejected offers of U.S. aid in lieu of lifting sanctions. His office announced Tuesday that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the withdrawal of $1 billion to fight COVID-19 as Iranian officials continued to appeal for support against the Trump administration's approach.

Alireza Miryousefi, spokesperson for the Iranian Mission to the U.N., told Newsweek that "any human with a conscience would agree that sanctions on Iran at a time of the Covid-19 pandemic is unconscionable."

"Anybody should be grateful to any one, group, company or country that will have the courage to stand up to U.S. bullying and furthermore, defy its illegal, inhuman sanctions regime that is waging economic terrorism on the Iranian people," he added.

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A graphic provided by Statista shows the global spread of the new coronavirus as of early April 8. More than 1.4 million people have been afflicted, more than 308,000 of whom have recovered and over 83,500 of whom have died. Statista

The above graphics were provided by Statista.