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U.S. Fights Off Tehran, Red Crescent Claims That Sanctions Hinder Flood Relief


Floods Devastate Iran, Wipe Out Villages, Bridges
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The United States has countered suggestions that its sanctions to try and change Tehran's political behavior are hurting relief efforts amid deadly flooding in Iran, accusing Iranian authorities of mismanaging the current crisis.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an April 2 statement that the floods "once again show the level of Iranian regime mismanagement in urban planning and in emergency preparedness."

"The regime blames outside entities when, in fact, it is their mismanagement that has led to this disaster," Pompeo added.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of the Red Crescent Society in Iran -- a local partner in the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement -- had suggested that U.S. sanctions were hampering humanitarian efforts amid flooding that has killed at least 47 Iranians and displaced residents of dozens of towns and villages.

Local Red Crescent head Ali Asghar Peyvandi told the semiofficial ISNA news agency on April 1 that his organization has been unable to receive international help for the victims of two weeks of flooding due to U.S. banking sanctions.

"We expected the Red Crescent, which is an aid organization that provides humanitarian services, to be exempted from the sanctions, but this is not the case," Peyvandi said.

A child's doll lies in front of destroyed cars after flooding in the southern city of Shiraz.
A child's doll lies in front of destroyed cars after flooding in the southern city of Shiraz.

The United States reimposed tough financial and trade sanctions after President Donald Trump last year withdrew from a 2015 agreement lifting punitive international measures in exchange for curbs on Tehran's disputed nuclear program, contributing to economic and currency woes and chronic shortages of spare parts and other resources in Iran.

"Prior to the [latest] sanctions, we had some [bank] accounts [connected to] SWIFT and we would used them to receive international aid, but these accounts are currently subject to sanctions and it’s not possible to transfer money to Iran from other countries or the International Red Cross Federation," Peyvandi said.

Dozens of military and Red Crescent aircraft are said to be involved in ongoing rescue and relief efforts in western and southern Iran, where water from heavy rainfall could wreak more havoc as it courses downstream.

The Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Communications (SWIFT) financial-messaging service said last year that it was suspending access for some Iranian banks "in the interest of the stability and integrity of the wider global financial system."

That move came after the United States warned that SWIFT could face sanctions if it provided services to Iranian banks blacklisted by Washington.

Peyvandi said that, in the aftermath of a deadly 2017 earthquake in the western Iranian province of Kermanshah, his organization had use of the bank account of a hospital that belongs to the Red Crescent to receive aid and transfer it into the country.

"We've written to the [United Nations] as well as the Red Cross about the impact of the sanctions on our ability to attract international aid, but we haven't received any response yet," he said.

An Iranian man carries his son in the flooded city of Ahvaz on March 31.
An Iranian man carries his son in the flooded city of Ahvaz on March 31.

Tehran has routinely spurned U.S. offers of humanitarian assistance after natural disasters like earthquakes amid the mistrust that has bedeviled decades of U.S.-Iranian relations.

But after twin earthquakes that killed some 300 Iranians and caused widespread damage in 2012, U.S. authorities issued a temporary general license to ease transfers of aid aimed at easing Iranian suffering.

On April 1, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to blast U.S. sanctions, which he said had prevented Iran from getting needed equipment, including helicopters that have been used to rescue residents from flood-stricken areas.

"This isn't just economic warfare; it's economic TERRORISM," Zarif claimed.

Speaking on April 2, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said that U.S. sanctions were preventing foreign and Iranian nationals outside the country from sending donations or other aid.

Ghasemi said domestic rescue bodies were trying to mitigate the problem but that no foreign aid had been received.

Earlier, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement that it was ready to offer help to Iran but "challenges caused by unilateral sanctions will affect the UN response and the accountability of UN to deliver the appropriate support," Reuters reported on March 26.

Pompeo said on April 2 that the United States "stands ready to assist and contribute to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which would then then direct the money through the Iranian Red Crescent for relief."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (file photo)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (file photo)

On its Farsi Twitter account, the State Department offered U.S. sympathy to the victims of the Iranian flooding and on March 25 said it was ready to help.

"On behalf of the U.S., we offer our condolences to the families of the victims of the recent floods in Iran, we also wish a quick recovery for the wounded," the tweet said.

"As always, we are ready to help, as we have been on the front lines of such [events] in other parts of the world," it added in a tweet that included an image of the flooding with the word "Condolences" in black.

There was no public reaction from Tehran to the offer.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control requires a special license for making charitable donations to Iran.

At least one U.S.-based charity organization, the Portland-based Child Foundation, said on its Facebook account that it was collecting donations to help those affected by the Iranian flooding.

The foundation, which said its OFAC license through the U.S. Department of Treasury allows it to send up to $3 million in humanitarian aid annually to Iran, said it had so far collected over $200,000 online for a flash-flood emergency fund.

Child Foundation said it would send donations to its sister organization in Iran, Bonyad Refah Koodak (aka Child Foundation-Iran).

"They will distribute the funds according to the needs of the community based on their assessment of the situation," the foundation said.

Severe Floods Kill Dozens Across Iran
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Iran’s official IRNA government news agency said several international humanitarian groups have offered to send help to flood victims, including Red Cross organizations in neighboring Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, as well as the United Kingdom.

German Ambassador to Tehran Michael Klor-Berchtold -- whose country has remained part of the Iranian nuclear deal along with China, Russia, and other EU states -- said via Twitter on April 1 that his country was providing humanitarian assistance to Iran's flood victims.

"40 boats and safety equipment will be delivered by #GermanRedCross to #IranianRedCrescent," he said.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who toured some of the afflicted regions last week, has promised to compensate victims.

He said 25 of Iran's 31 provinces had been affected and that the scale of the disaster had overwhelmed emergency services in some areas.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.