Iran and Venezuela, frequent targets of the U.S. “maximum pressure campaign” of economic sanctions, both have weakened health-care systems and are now being hit hard by the coronavirus. That has prompted senior officials at the United Nations to urge waiving sanctions, at least temporarily until the global health threat is under control.
“This is the time for solidarity, not exclusion,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres wrote in a letter this past week to the Group of 20 economic powers. “Let us remember that we are only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world.”
So far, the United States has shown no inclination to pull back sanctions and has even doubled down as the pandemic spread. The Treasury Department on Thursday designated 20 people and companies it said had profiteered from Iranian electricity sales to Iraq. On the same day, the Justice Department indicted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his inner circle on narcoterrorism charges.
Administration officials note that sanctions allow exceptions for humanitarian and medical aid, though critics say that companies that might meet the rules are worried they may mistakenly trip up and be put under sanctions themselves. U.S. officials also argue that loosening sanctions would only reward governments that have a track record of diverting humanitarian aid to enrich the ruling elites.
In years past, Iranian doctors working with foreign organizations on HIV prevention have been arrested on charges of collaborating with an enemy government, and luxury cars have been purchased with money allotted for medical equipment. In 2018, the United States imposed sanctions on an Iranian pharmaceutical company for funneling money to terrorist groups.
A recent video translated by the State Department shows Iranian President Hassan Rouhani praising the Foreign Ministry’s public relations campaign to lift sanctions.
“U.S. sanctions exempt medicine and all humanitarian assistance,” Brian Hook, the U.S. envoy for Iran, said in an email. “We have repeatedly offered medical assistance to the Iranian people, which the regime has rejected. The Iranian people are not blaming U.S. sanctions for this health crisis, they are blaming the regime for disinformation and mismanagement. And they know from bitter experience that the regime always spends sanctions relief on its proxies, not its people.”
Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist, said foreign aid, even to authoritarian regimes during epidemics, has long been effective in fighting diseases such as polio, AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
“There are professionals in public health services who put themselves on the front line of danger every day to help save people,” he said. “The idea that this is the only choice, putting money in the hands of particular people versus helping countries, is a total falsehood.”
The accelerating coronavirus pandemic has caused even some critics of the two governments to question whether it is counterproductive and inhumane to continue with sanctions as usual.
Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the U.S.-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, said Tehran’s “pride and incompetence” is costing lives and urged officials there to accept U.S. offers of assistance. But he also said the strategy of continuing sanctions is “disconnected from the reality of what is happening all over this planet.”
“If a big and pivotal country like Iran cannot control it, we are all in danger,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is a time to rise above politics and geopolitics. It’s in our own national interest to make sure every country in the world can contain it.”
Proponents of waiving sanctions say that doing so during the pandemic could promote the Trump administration’s political objectives in ways that have been elusive under its maximum pressure campaign.
Geoff Ramsey, the Venezuela director for the Washington Office on Latin America, said a temporary easing of sanctions imposed on the Maduro government could break the stalemate between Maduro and Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s congressional leader who the United States and more than 50 other nations recognize as the legitimate president.
“Venezuela is more sanctioned than Iran right now, but it has not gotten us closer to a democratic transition,” Ramsey said. “Providing sanctions relief, with all the necessary guarantees of transparency and accountability and approved by the opposition, could pave the way for more meaningful negotiations.”
The pandemic already is chipping away at the animosities between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela. Health authorities from the two nations recently had their first bilateral conversation in more than a year when they joined a virtual meeting to exchange information on covid-19 infections crossing their mutual border.
But otherwise, the idea hasn’t gained much traction. The International Monetary Fund this month rejected Maduro’s request for an emergency $5 billion loan to fight the coronavirus, saying there was no agreement on who is the country’s rightful leader.
Guaidó’s parallel government has rejected any sanctions relief.
“Maduro is the only one responsible for the vulnerability and defenselessness of Venezuela in the face of the pandemic,” said Carlos Vecchio, Guaidó’s envoy to the United States, in a statement.
Ramsey said sentiment could change as Venezuela’s collapsed health system proves incapable of treating a growing number of patients.
“There’s very little political will right now,” he said. “But as we start to see bodies pile up in morgues across Venezuela, the opposition will come under serious pressure to free up international funds that can get together an appropriate response. And that will likely place greater pressure on the White House.”
There appears to be even less political will to ease sanctions on Iran. Even as coronavirus casualties have mounted in the country, Iranian-backed militias have fired rockets at U.S. troops in Iraq, and Iran’s uranium stockpile has grown and its oil products still find buyers.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the weaponization of the coronavirus crisis in Iran by regime elites for political purposes, like the continuation of the quest for premature sanctions relief so that Tehran can have more cash on hand to inflame the region and engage in other illicit activities,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iranian analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Sanctions are not drivers of the crisis between Iran and America, or Venezuela and America. They are responses to ongoing security threats by states that abuse the rules-based order. For sanctions to be lifted, their bad behavior should change.”