A nurse wears protective gear in a ward dedicated for people infected with the new coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 8, 2020.

A nurse wears protective gear in a ward dedicated for people infected with the new coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 8, 2020. AP / Mohammad Ghadamali

The US Should Help Iran Get the Coronavirus Under Control

Easing sanctions will help confront a global pandemic and win back some goodwill from ordinary beleaguered Iranians.

The United States has a stake in helping Iran bring its coronavirus outbreak under control; after all, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York was a woman who flew in from Iran. But crippling U.S. sanctions are hampering Iran’s ability to import masks, medicine, and other crucial medical supplies, undermining their efforts to combat the virus. Even though exemptions on humanitarian trade currently exist on paper, they have been ineffective and are inadequate in dealing with the magnitude of the crisis. By easing sanctions, the U.S. would help get the global pandemic under control, while simultaneously displaying a foreign policy undergirded by values and potentially winning back some lost goodwill from ordinary Iranians. 

While Iranian government officials have differed on just how short the country is of life-saving medical supplies and equipment, Iranian health care workers and pharmaceutical companies say sanctions have made the gear far harder to obtain. According to one employee of a major pharmaceutical company in Iran, “the sanctions have definitely made the import and production processes longer and more expensive” and “have reduced Iran’s capacity to control the outbreak.”

Other reports indicate a dire shortage of masks and other forms of personal protective equipment, ventilators, and medicine used to treat the virus, all worsened by sanctions that delay or block the sale of goods needed to treat the outbreak. Exports from EU nations have dropped over the past four years; sterilizer solution, for example, is down about 75 percent. Even domestically produced medicines consist of about 20 percent imported material, “and those are constantly being hit by sanctions,”  said one manager of an Iranian pharmaceutical company.

Meanwhile, Iran’s teetering economy — it contracted 9.5 percent last year, thanks in large part to Trump administration sanctions on Iran’s oil, financial, petrochemical, and manufacturing sectors — means that most Iranians cannot afford to stay home from work or avoid public places.s

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Despite clear indications that U.S. sanctions are impeding Iran’s response to the virus, Trump administration officials habitually state the opposite. On March 20, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said, “the whole world should know that humanitarian assistance into Iran is wide open. It’s not sanctioned.” However, the issue is not what is technically exempt from sanctions, but what those exemptions and surrounding sanctions do in reality. 

For example, the Treasury Department has an exemption for medicine and medical devices, but these categories are so narrowly defined that they impede the import of desperately needed items. For example, face shields, gowns, N95 masks, and gloves do not fall under the exemption. So in the dogfight between countries over scarce resources, Iran’s medical industry has one arm tied behind its back. The federal government must also approve a license for companies to even use the humanitarian exemptions. Treasury records show that only 11 percent of applicants for one-time medical device licenses were approved in 2017 and 2018, a sharp decline from previous years.

The Treasury Department has made a few moves ostensibly to alleviate these issues, but hasn’t gone far enough. It has partially rolled back its designation of the Central Bank of Iran under terrorism authorities, which severely complicated humanitarian trade. While it was was a welcome step, the rollback did little to remove the chilling effect sanctions have on Iran’s would-be suppliers. 

The U.S. also worked to facilitate the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement, created to allow Swiss companies to send humanitarian gear to Iran. However, Swiss authorities said the channel has only completed one transaction as of mid-March due to a lack of financing available to Iran. Moreover, UK officials reportedly have misgivings about the channel's arduous due-diligence process, fearing that it creates more problems than it solves.

Yet there is a growing consensus among U.S. lawmakers that Washingtonshould ease humanitarian restrictions on Iran or temporarily suspend some sanctions. On March 31, a group of senators and House members sent a letter to the Trump administration calling on them to ease sanctions. A March 26 letter signed by 11 other senators called on the White House to loosen sanctions for 90 days on both Iran and Venezuela. In an April 9 letter to President Trump, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, wrote that “it is in our national interest...to help Iran contain this disease.” And on April 5 , a joint statement including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, four former NATO Secretaries-General, and other American and European dignitaries called for the U.S. to loosen sanctions on Iran during the pandemic.

The Trump administration ought to listen to the chorus of voices calling on them to scale back their maximalist approach to Iran and provide sanctions relief to a devastated country. While the U.S. is not responsible for the Iranian government's inadequacies, loosening sanctions would help achieve U.S. interests by curbing the spread of the virus and maintaining some goodwill with Iranians by ensuring their doctors, nurses, and citizens don’t have to pay for the disagreements between two governments.