Photo credit: U.S. State Department
Trump administration piles on sanctions as the rest of the world helps Iran confront COVID-19

As Iran confronts a crisis that could kill millions of its citizens, much of the rest of the world, except for the United States, is coming to its aid.

China, the original source of the novel coronavirus, has sent medical experts and planeloads of supplies to Iran, the third most affected country after China and Italy.

Iran’s neighbors, and sometime rivals, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, have also provided cash and goods, setting aside their other differences with the Islamic Republic.

Britain, France, and Germany, the so-called E3, stepped forward, pledging $5.6 million as well as medical goods, including equipment for lab tests, protective body suits, and gloves. “France, Germany and the United Kingdom express their full solidarity with all impacted by COVID-19 in Iran,” the E3 wrote in a statement. “We are offering Iran a comprehensive package of both material and financial support to combat the rapid spread of the disease.”

And what of the world’s greatest power?

The Trump administration says it offered help, too, but was rebuffed by Tehran, which is instead calling for suspension of the heavy sanctions the U.S. imposed after unilaterally quitting the Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. has so far rejected this. Instead, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced yet more sanctions on individuals and entities seeking to circumvent the sanctions. He also urged Iran to free U.S. prisoners — a worthy demand but one that should not be a precondition for sanctions relief ­— and told Iranians to download an encrypted app to report on their government’s mishandling of the pandemic.

There is no doubt that Iran has mismanaged its initial response — as have many countries, including the U.S., and that Iran is responsible for many abhorent policies. However, now is not the time for recriminations — or for regime change propaganda — but for the entire world to cooperate as best as possible against this most pressing global crisis, one that puts the Iran threat in a different context.

The Trump administration, which purports to care about ordinary Iranians, could announce that it is suspending for the duration of the pandemic financial sanctions that make it nearly impossible for Iranians to pay for essential supplies. It could, at a minimum, not block Iran’s request for an emergency $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

More ambitiously, the pandemic could lay the ground for “viral” diplomacy to begin to heal the chasm between Washington and Tehran. Unfortunately, however, the Trump administration appears wedded to “maximum pressure” and seems to fear that easing sanctions will somehow make it look weak.

Even more ominously, a new spasm of tit-for-tat attacks has begun in Iraq, leading to several American and Iraqi deaths. There are murmurs in Washington that the U.S will hit Iran hard in another ill-advised attempt to re-establish “deterrence” — something. that the drone assassination of senior Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani back in January clearly failed to accomplish.

In fact, the U.S military presence in Iraq — as this author predicted back in January — is becoming more and more untenable. Already, the U.S. has left three bases in Iraq and consolidated the American presence in and close to Baghdad in what could be a prelude to a U.S. withdrawal in coming weeks. Iraq itself is in political limbo as it tries to confirm a new prime minister and is contending with both the coronavirus and the shock of collapsing oil prices to its oil-based economy.

Calls for the U.S. to suspend sanctions against Iran — which have also hurt Iraq and other Iranian neighbors — are coming from a number of quarters, including U.S. allies and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders tweeted on Wednesday: “Iran is facing a catastrophic toll from the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. sanctions should not be contributing to this humanitarian disaster. As a caring nation, we must lift any sanctions hurting Iran’s ability to address this crisis, including financial sanctions.”

The U.S. has helped Iran in the past, even during periods of high tension. In late 2003, the U.S. military sent planeloads of relief supplies to the ancient city of Bam, which had just experienced a devastating earthquake.

Today, the spring equinox, is also Nowruz, the Persian New Year. It is a time to turn the page and try to build a better future. Compassion is not weakness but a sign of humanity and strength. The Trump administration can do better on many fronts; a gesture toward Iran is an easy step.