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Groups call on Biden to offer Iran coronavirus relief

A letter to the president says he should 'follow through on his call for urgently-needed humanitarian relief to Iran.'

Reporting | Middle East

More than 40 humanitarian and human rights organizations called on the Biden administration to lift economic restrictions that are making it more difficult for Iran to deal with the coronavirus pandemic in a Wednesday open letter.

The United States is currently enforcing strict sanctions on the Iranian economy, many of them imposed during the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

The letter by antiwar, human rights, and religious organizations calls on “President Joe Biden to follow through on his call for urgently-needed humanitarian relief to Iran amid the devastating toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Signatories include the Quaker volunteer organization American Friends Service Committee, the progressive think tank Win Without War, the National Iranian American Council, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and the Presbyterian Church’s Office of Public Witness. 

"Iran's COVID infection rates are at about the highest levels we have seen since the start of the pandemic. Any delays in vaccination will directly translate into a grave risk to the lives of ordinary Iranians," said Mani Mostofi, director of the human rights organization Miaan Group, in a statement. "Because sanctions on Iran clog up the global financial system and the country's access to foreign currency, it's imperative that the Biden Administration proactively ensure the US is not responsible for exacerbating this health crisis."

Iran is now facing more than 400 coronavirus deaths per day, the highest number in months, a wave that officials blame on gatherings for the Iranian spring holiday of Nowruz.

Iranian leaders originally said they would shun American- or British-made vaccines, but has since begun importing British-made AstraZeneca vaccines through the COVAX channel. Only two percent of the population has been vaccinated so far.

As a candidate, Biden had complained that while U.S. sanctions law technically exempts food and medicine, “most governments and organizations are too concerned about running afoul of U.S. sanctions to offer assistance” to virus-stricken Iran. He called for several specific measures to make it easier to offer assistance to sanctioned countries.

The Biden administration is currently undergoing a review of how sanctions affect coronavirus response worldwide.

“We commend President Biden for making the defeat of the pandemic his top priority, and for announcing a review of how sanctions have inhibited humanitarian trade amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Day 2 of his administration,” the letter states. 

But, the letter adds, Biden has “plenty of opportunities” to offer relief now that he is in office.

The letter also calls on the Biden administration to allow Iran to use its frozen assets to buy food and medicine.

Billions of dollars in Iranian export revenues and other funds are currently held up in foreign banks due to U.S. sanctions. Iran has struggled to pay for food imports, and foreign exporters have cut ties with Iran due to the sanctions.

Although the maximum pressure campaign began in 2018, the United States took until 2020 to set up a “humanitarian channel” for Iran to pay for food and medicine through Swiss banks. The channel has only processed one transaction so far.

South Korea and Iran have been in talks to use some of the $7 billion in Iranian money held up in South Korean banks for buying food and medicine, but South Korean authorities say they need permission from the U.S. Treasury to proceed, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly opposed releasing the money.

Blinken said in March that any sanctions relief would have to come as part of an agreement to return to the 2015 nuclear deal. Under that deal, six world powers had agreed to lift the economic embargo on Iran in exchange for restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program.

The Trump administration broke from the deal when it began its maximum pressure campaign, prompting Iran to ramp up its own nuclear activities, although Tehran maintains that it will come back into compliance if the United States does so as well.

The world powers are now in negotiations to restore the nuclear deal, with all sides optimistic about the outcome.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday that talks were about “60, 70 percent” done, while U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price claimed that “there has been some progress” but “we have more road ahead of us than we do in the rearview mirror.”

Wednesday’s letter, however, argues that the fight against coronavirus should not be held hostage to nuclear diplomacy.

“Such urgent humanitarian steps cannot be tied to our broader disputes with the Iranian government,” it states. “COVID-19 is a shared threat, and the U.S. needs to treat it like one.”

Tehran / Iran - Oct 25, 2020: Two senior citizens are walking in a street and protect their face with shield and medical masks against pandemic coronavirus. (Photo: Farzad Frames via shutterstock.com)
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