There are increased calls for the United States to suspend economic sanctions against Iran, which some believe hamper Tehran's ability to contain the deadly outbreak of coronavirus that has officially killed nearly 2,000 people.
The United States has offered to help Iran but has shown no desire to ease crippling sanctions reimposed on Tehran shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump exited the 2015 landmark nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018.
Trump said on March 22 he had offered to help the Islamic republic in its fight against the coronavirus, saying that "Iran is really going through a difficult period with respect to this, as you know."
Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rohani, have long called for the lifting of the sanctions, while dismissing Washington's humanitarian offer as dishonest. "They offer a glass of muddy water but they don't say that they've blocked this nation from [accessing] the main [water] springs," Rohani said on March 23.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei went as far as suggesting that the United States might be behind the pandemic and therefore the offer cannot be trusted. "You are accused of creating this virus; I don’t know if this is true, but amid such an allegation, how can a wise person trust you and accept your offer of help?" he said in a speech on March 22. "You could be giving medicine to Iran that spread the virus or cause it to remain here permanently."
In a statement issued on March 23, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Khamenei’s "fabrications" put Iranians and people around the world at greater risk. He also reiterated that U.S. sanctions did not target imports of food, medicine, or other humanitarian goods.
Iran has said it asked the International Monetary Fund for $5 billion in emergency funding to battle the coronavirus outbreak that, according to Iran's Health Ministry, is killing one person nearly every 10 minutes.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also appealed on March 22 for Trump to lift the sanctions -- which prevent banking transactions well as the export of oil -- on humanitarian grounds until the COVID-19 pandemic is over. "The people of Iran are facing untold suffering as sanctions are crippling Iran's efforts to fight COVID19," Khan said on Twitter. "Humanity must unite to fight this pandemic."
'Maximum Pressure' To Continue
While continuing to pressure Tehran amid the pandemic, U.S. officials have blamed much of the crisis on mismanagement by Iranian leaders, who are accused of a slow initial response.
Criticism also came for the failure of Iranian officials to quarantine the city of Qom, the epicenter of the outbreak in Iran and from where the virus is believed to have first spread to the rest of the country.
"Our policy of maximum pressure on the regime continues," Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iranian affairs, told reporters last week. "U.S. sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran."
China and Russia, allies of Tehran and signatories to the 2015 nuclear accord, have also made a similar appeal for the lifting of U.S. sanctions. "We called and are calling on the United States to abandon the inhumane practice of applying unilateral sanctions against Iran, which has an acute shortage of means to solve urgent health issues in the current situation of the spread of the coronavirus," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last week.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry made a similar demand on Twitter. "Continued sanction on Iran was against humanitarianism and hampers Iran's epidemic response & delivery of humanitarian aid by the UN and other organizations," it tweeted on March 16.
The Guardian reported on March 18 that Britain was also privately pressing the United States to ease sanctions on Iran to allow it to help fight against the coronavirus, which, according to figures released by Iran’s Health Ministry on March 24, has infected 24,811 Iranians. The official death toll -- which has been criticized by many as being underreported -- stands at 1,934.
On March 20, some 25 organizations in the United States, including the International Crisis Group, Oxfam America, and the National Iranian American Council, called on U.S. leaders to lift the sanctions for 120 days to offer Iranians relief at this critical time.
"Sanctions have harmed the public health sector in Iran by slowing or entirely blocking the sale of medicine, respirators, and hygienic supplies needed to mitigate the epidemic, and broad sectoral sanctions continue to negatively impact ordinary Iranians by shuttering civilian-owned businesses and decimating the value of the rial, making it harder to procure food, medicine, and other basic needs,” the organizations said in a joint online statement.
There have also been calls on social media by U.S. lawmakers, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. "Iran is facing a catastrophic toll from the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. sanctions should not be contributing to this humanitarian disaster," he tweeted on March 18. "As a caring nation, we must lift any sanctions hurting Iran’s ability to address this crisis, including financial sanctions."
Human Rights Watch said in an October 2019 report that U.S. sanctions have drastically constrained Iran's ability to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment.