Two dozen former diplomats and national security leaders from the United States and Europe called on the Trump administration Monday to ease sanctions against Iran as part of the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

Even as the statement came out, an Iranian government spokesman said Iran would never ask the United States for help during the outbreak and demanded that sanctions be lifted instead.

The reaction from Iran underscored the mutual distrust and heightened tension between the two nations, as U.S. sanctions have devastated Iran’s economy and Iranian-backed militias have launched attacks on U.S. troops and allies in neighboring Iraq.

Some of the most storied diplomats in recent U.S. history signed the statement calling for the acrimony to be put aside for sanctions relief now, saying it could help stem the spread of the novel disease and potentially save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Iran is one of the world’s coronavirus epicenters, with more than 60,000 people infected and at least 3,700 deaths, though some researchers believe the death toll is far higher.

“Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has upended every aspect of the global economy and of human lives and health, it has drastically changed the impact of a U.S. policy designed for a different purpose and conditions,” it said. “Just because Iran has managed the crisis badly, that does not make its humanitarian needs and our security ones any the less. Targeted sanctions relief would be both morally right and serve the health and security interests of the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world.”

The signatories represented decades of diplomatic and national security expertise. Among them is former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, two former defense secretaries and a U.S. and a European official who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that President Trump withdrew from in 2018 before reimposing old sanctions and adding new ones. The European signatories include former prime ministers, foreign ministers, ambassadors and secretary generals of NATO.

The mounting coronavirus-
related deaths have fueled a chorus of pleas to at least temporarily ease sanctions against countries with economies and health-care systems shattered by sanctions and collapsing oil prices.

U.S. officials have resisted relenting on the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions, and have added more against Iran and Venezuela in recent weeks. State Department officials have defended the measures by noting that humanitarian and medical aid is exempt.

Richard Goldberg, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says Iran doesn’t need foreign aid to fight the pandemic. He noted that the Iranian government just transferred more than $1 billion from its sovereign wealth fund to ­respond to the health crisis.

“The regime is probably very upset it needs to use this money on its people, leaving less money available for malign activities,” he said. “But it shows us that they don’t need sanctions relief — they should be forced to spend their money on their people.”

The statement released Monday argues that the coronavirus upends the utility of maximal sanctions. Though humanitarian exceptions exist in theory, they said, importing medicine and equipment is a slow, cumbersome and expensive process that discourages companies worried about overstepping boundaries.

The leaders who participated in the statement make several recommendations for relief that do not challenge the legitimacy of sanctions but could undermine three years of pressure to get Iran to change its behavior.

Among them, they suggest adding staff to the Treasury Department, which oversees sanctions, to speed up licensing so suppliers can ship equipment to Iran in weeks instead of months. They also said the administration should allow an immediate, International Monetary Fund loan to Iran and send “comfort letters” to banks to reassure them they will not be held in violation of sanctions if they provide money for humanitarian trade with Iran.

“This is not a statement that sanctions themselves are fundamentally at fault here, or that sanctions are not an appropriate policy,” said Richard Nephew, the lead sanctions expert for U.S. negotiators in the Iran nuclear agreement. “Rather, that their implementation in this particular set of circumstances needs to change to reflect the circumstances that we have.”

Some of the statement’s signatories envisioned openings that meet some U.S. stated goals without robbing Iran of its dignity. Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and six countries, said Iran’s release of U.S. citizens imprisoned on what Washington considers false charges would be one way to thaw relations.

“This statement marks the beginning of the beginning,” he said. “Much will have be done to make it into something active.”

The proposals were the work of two groups — the Iran Project, a U.S. organization working to foster dialogue between the United States and Iran; and the European Leadership Network, a ­London-based group of leaders seeking practical solutions to ­political and security challenges.

The signatories include Wendy Sherman, a former senior State Department official, and Federica Mogherini, the former foreign policy chief for the European Union. Both were involved in negotiations with Iran for the 2015 nuclear deal, which gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.

The statement also was signed by Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister and director of the World Health Organization; and Thomas Shannon, who was the acting secretary of state before the Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson.