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Coronavirus fuels calls for sanctions relief on Iran, Venezuela

24 March, 2020
Source: AP

From Caracas to Tehran, officials are calling on the Trump administration to ease crippling economic sanctions they contend are contributing to the growing death toll caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The idea has gained support from prominent leftists in the U.S., including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who say throwing a financial lifeline to some of the United States' fiercest critics is worth it if lives can be saved.

“It’s absolutely unconscionable to keep sanctions on at this moment,” Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, said in an interview. “The only moral, sane and legal thing to do is stop the madness that is crippling other countries’ health systems.”

But almost in the same breath, the same officials in Iran have rejected U.S. offers of aid — a sign to critics that scapegoating and pride, not U.S. policies, are causing immense harm. 

U.S. officials have brushed aside the criticism, saying that the sanctions allow the delivery of food and medicine. But most experts say shipments don't materialize as Western companies are leery of doing business with either of the two governments.

“In most cases, compliance by banks makes it virtually impossible to do business,” said Jason Poblete, a sanctions lawyer in Washington who has represented American citizens held in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. 

Iran has reported more than 1,810 coronavirus deaths as of Monday, the fourth-highest national total in the world, and its government argues U.S. sanctions have exacerbated the outbreak. It has been supported by China and Russia in calling for sanctions to be lifted. The European Union's top foreign policy chief on Monday called on the U.S. to make clear its sanctions don't target humanitarian aid. 
“Even amid this pandemic, the U.S. government has vengefully refused to lift its unlawful and collective punishment, making it virtually impossible for us to even buy medicine,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a video statement. 

He also published on Twitter a list of the supplies that Iran urgently needs, including 172 million masks and 1,000 ventilators.
“Viruses don't discriminate. Nor should humankind,” he wrote.

U.S. officials say providing sanctions relief to Iran would only fund corruption and terrorist activities, not reach people in need. They point out that Venezuela's medical system has been in a free fall for years and shortages predate the sanctions. 

Kenneth Roth, the head of New York-based Human Rights Watch, which has issued scathing reports on abuses in Iran and Venezuela, said the international community should come together to help every country, even those under sanctions, gain access to needed medical supplies. 

“The U.S. government should clearly state that no one will be penalized for financing or supplying humanitarian aid in this time of a public-health crisis,” he told The Associated Press.

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