Joe Biden Sanctions Review Could Hand Iran COVID Relief Ahead of Nuclear Talks

President Joe Biden has ordered a review of all foreign sanctions as he formulates his begins rolling out his policy agenda, evaluating a broad range of such measures imposed by predecessor President Donald Trump.

Sanctions were a favored weapon for Trump, used to undermine rivals including Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, China, Russia and others, despite ongoing debates over their efficacy. Others, including Iraq and the European Union, were threatened with sanctions unless they accepted administration demands.

The national security directive published on Thursday is part of Biden's executive blitz in his first days in office, as the new president seeks to chart a national response to the coronavirus pandemic, something reports this week have suggested was non-existent under Trump.

The directive orders the State, Treasury and Commerce departments to coordinate with the Health and Human Services department and USAID to "promptly review existing United States and multilateral financial and economic sanctions to evaluate whether they are unduly hindering responses to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Any proposed "changes in approach" will then be passed up to Biden, the directive explains. It is not clear when any proposed changes will be submitted to the president.

Reuters said in December the plans are not expected to radically depart from Trump's existing measures. One person close to Biden's transition team told the agency: "It won't be a pullback or a push forward...It will be a readjustment in the use of the sanctions tool."

Among the countries that could benefit most is Iran, which during Trump's term was placed under successively tougher sanctions after the former president withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in 2018.

Biden wants to rejoin the JCPOA, assuming Tehran returns to full compliance with the deal. But Iran could be in line for more relief if Biden's team finds Trump's sanctions are undermining efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Iran became an early epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, the virus rapidly spreading across the country infecting and killing even top regime officials. The government in Tehran was accused of hiding the true scale of the outbreak, and the number of Iranians who have died.

More than 1.3 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Iran, according to Johns Hopkins University. Of these, more than 57,00 have died.

From the outset, Iran said American sanctions were undermining its healthcare system. The Trump administration repeatedly dismissed such complaints, noting the sanctions had loopholes to allow medical and humanitarian imports. But this was insufficient, according to Tehran. Officials argued that financial sanctions meant the regime could not access the funds needed to import necessary supplies.

The Iranian mission to the U.N. also told Newsweek last year that American sanctions threatened Iran's involvement in the Vaccine Alliance's COVAX coronavirus treatment project and prevented the importation of two million flu vaccine doses into the country.

Whether caused by sanctions, regime incompetence and corruption, or a combination of both, medical workers in Iran have reported a chronic lack of equipment, serious staffing problems and a creaking medical system.

The Trump administration also rejected Iranian appeals, citing Tehran's rejection of American assistance made at the very start of the pandemic. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei further undermined Iran's position earlier this month by banning the use of American or British vaccines in the country. In December, Iran began trials of its own vaccine.

Still, Iran IS well aware of the need for sanctions relief, despite stubborn official statements declaring victory over Trump's maximum pressure campaign and the tough resolve of the Iranian people.

In March, President Hassan Rouhani said the U.S. could help his nation fight coronavirus by lifting sanctions. "American leaders are lying," he said in a televised speech. The same day, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted: "U.S. is NOT listening, impeding global fight against #COVID19."

In September, Zarif told RT: "Whatever the Americans are saying about their sanctions not affecting humanitarian items, it's just a lie... It's basically medical terrorism."

Calls for relief for Iran have also come from the international community. A group of 24 senior diplomats and defense officials, including four former NATO secretaries-general, appealed to Trump in April to save "potentially hundreds of thousands of lives" by easing Iranian sanctions.

And in March, the United Nations Secretary-General issued a broad call for nations to drop the use of sanctions during the pandemic, adding: "This is the time for solidarity not exclusion."

Iran woman on bus in Tehran mask
An Iranian woman wearing a protective mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic, sits in a bus in the capital Tehran, on December 30, 2020. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty