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Opinion America should help contain Iran’s spiking coronavirus epidemic

Firefighters wearing protective gear disinfect streets in Tehran on March 18. (WANA News Agency/Reuters)

IRAN, LIKE the United States, is fighting a so-far failing war against the novel coronavirus, which according to expert studies could kill millions in both countries if it is not contained. Yet neither the Trump administration nor the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has let this unprecedented emergency distract them from their war against each other. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have repeatedly launched rockets against U.S. targets this month, even as tens of thousands of covid-19 cases swamped medical facilities inside Iran.

The United States has responded by bombing the militias’ weapons storage sites and by continuing to escalate sanctions on the stricken Iranian economy; last week, several companies involved in marketing Iranian petrochemicals were targeted. This week, Mr. Khamenei and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo devoted themselves to overheated verbal broadsides: The Iranian ruler blamed U.S. sanctions for impeding the fight against the epidemic, which he hinted had been created by the United States, while Mr. Pompeo claimed Tehran was lying about the extent of infections and stealing money intended for medical supplies.

More coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

There is a certain crude logic to the attacks in Iraq: Iranian hard-liners have plausible hopes of forcing a U.S. withdrawal from the country and handing the regime a strategic victory to balance the losses inflicted by U.S. sanctions. But the strategy behind U.S. policy is harder to discern. At a time of an extraordinary humanitarian crisis, the Trump administration is stepping up “maximum pressure” measures that increase hardship for a nation of 80 million. To what end?

Neither the collapse nor the capitulation of the regime seems a likely result. Instead, the United States is being blamed by ordinary Iranians as well as other nations for making it more difficult for authorities to combat the epidemic. That includes allies: Britain is among those that have asked for an easing of sanctions.

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Mr. Pompeo asserts that the United States has offered medical assistance to Iran — which the regime rejected — and that sanctions do not target imports of food or medicine. But U.S. measures to curtail Iranian financing, insurance and shipping surely have an effect. Writing in the New York Times, Narges Bajoghli of Johns Hopkins University and Mahsa Rouhi of the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported that several companies that supply medical equipment used to combat the coronavirus had stopped shipping to Iran.

President Trump has, at least, resisted pressure from Mr. Pompeo and other hard-liners to further escalate military action in Iraq. But instead of escalating sanctions, he ought to be offering Iran the chance to ease tensions through mutual humanitarian actions. The regime has already paroled one of the U.S. citizens it had been holding in its prisons. While seeking the release of the others, the administration should support Iran’s request to the International Monetary Fund for emergency aid.

The confrontation Mr. Trump initiated with Iran has manifestly failed to achieve its aims. The coronavirus epidemic offers him the opportunity to correct course while helping to contain one dangerous focal point of the pandemic.

Read more:

Jason Rezaian: Iran’s response to the coronavirus is just making everything worse

Jason Rezaian: Iran’s government is lying its way to a coronavirus catastrophe

The Post’s View: Iran’s reaction to coronavirus has become a danger for the world

David Ignatius: Coronavirus will test whether the planet can unite in the face of a global crisis

Jason Rezaian: An ancient celebration is about to make Iran’s coronavirus nightmare even worse

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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