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Bush and Obama eased sanctions on Iran during humanitarian crises, why isn’t Trump?

Crippling U.S. sanctions are severely impeding Iranian efforts to combat the coronavirus, compelling Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to ask the United Nations for help.

The coronavirus is fast spreading around the world and Iran is now one of the main epicenters of this pandemic. The virus first started to spread in the holy city of Qom, Iran’s main religious town that is located just 90 miles from Tehran. After neglecting and dismissing the danger of the outbreak at the beginning, Iranian officials have finally started to take the situation seriously. Schools and colleges have been closed for the next month, Friday prayers have been canceled, and people are encouraged to avoid public places and stay at home. But the virus still seems to be quickly spreading.

With over 11,000 cases confirmed across Iran and at least 514 dead, the outbreak is increasingly growing by the day and sources inside the country suggest that the actual numbers are much higher.

In many cities and provinces, hospitals are overcrowded with special-care units at full capacity. Iranian health workers, doctors, and nurses are working around the clock at the frontlines of the fight against the virus, risking their own lives in dealing with a shortage of essential supplies, medical equipment, and test kits. And U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Iran are one of the key reasons for the shortage of supplies.

The dire situation has now compelled Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to send a letter to United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, asking for the immediate lifting of U.S. sanctions on Iran, saying they have made it virtually impossible for Iran to import medicine and medical equipment necessary to identify and treat coronavirus patients.

Although sanctions technically do not ban food, medicine, and humanitarian trade, many companies and banks are reluctant to engage in any business with Iran, particularly when hawkish groups in the U.S. engage in name-and-shame operations that are even directed at healthcare related industries.

Doctors and health officials in Iran, as well as international aid organizations have raised the alarm on how sanctions have limited Iran’s access to much-needed medical supplies to deal with the outbreak.

“The situation here is hard and we do what we can, but clearly sanctions have destroyed the ability of the domestic suppliers to procure internationally,” one international aid worker in Tehran told me, adding, “We need to be able to re-establish normal business links for the private sector at least for the medical items, as this is about the life and death of patients.”

In August 2012, after deadly earthquakes hit several villages in northwestern Iran, a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged then-President Barack Obama to ease sanctions on Iran to make sure humanitarian aid got to the Iranian people in their time of need. The Treasury Department issued a temporary license that allowed NGOs to transfer funds up to $300,000 to Iran to be used for humanitarian relief and reconstruction related to the earthquake.

In December 2003 a devastating earthquake in the ancient city of Bam in southern Iran killed thousands and injured many more. Then-President George W. Bush temporarily eased sanctions on Iran to allow humanitarian aid to get in, including supplies from the United States. Multiple U.S. military planes landed in Iran for the first time since the 1979 revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis that ended diplomatic ties between the two countries. The cargo planes transferred over 150,000 pounds of medical supplies and more than 200 civilian personnel from Boston, Los Angeles, and Fairfax County in Virginia, to assist Iran in search and rescue, emergency surgery, and disaster response coordination.

Since Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and imposed sanctions, Washington and Tehran have been on a collision course and the Trump administration has offered no such help to the Iranian people.

Pouya Alimagham, a historian at MIT, told me that if the goal was to sanction Iran until it accepts a better nuclear deal that includes its missile program and regional issues, then the Trump administration has achieved the opposite — increased Iranian uranium enrichment, missile launches against U.S. bases in Iraq by Iranian-linked militias after the U.S. assassination of General Qassem Soleimani earlier this year, and no change in Iranian foreign policy. Mr. Alimagham added that in fact, the two countries nearly started an all-out war over Soleimani’s killing. In sum, the sanctions have been a total failure, and have exacted an immeasurable toll on regular Iranians — a toll that has now been compounded with the new coronavirus outbreak.

The current pandemic could provide an opportunity for President Trump to make a humanitarian gesture towards Iran. He should ease sanctions to allow aid and medical supplies to get into Iran in order to help contain the epicenter of the disease in the Middle East and slow one of the largest outbreaks of this deadly virus. This may open the door for future dialogue that could finally get Tehran and Washington out of this impasse.

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