Calls grow for Trump to relax humanitarian sanctions on Iran

Administration pressured to free up flow of medicine, supplies into Islamic Republic amid COVID-19 pandemic

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., conducts a meeting at the Capitol before the Senate policy luncheon on April 30, 2019.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., conducts a meeting at the Capitol before the Senate policy luncheon on April 30, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 9, 2020 at 3:35pm

Clarified Friday, 2:15 p.m.The Trump administration is coming under increasing pressure to modify its sanctions on Iran to allow medicine and medical equipment to be imported into the Islamic Republic, which is struggling to manage a coronavirus health disaster.

The calls for the tweaking or suspension of sanctions are coming from across a broad swath of the political spectrum and include progressives and moderates. Even some of the most hawkish voices on Iran have said they support technical modifications to the sanctions regime to facilitate the flow of humanitarian goods into the country.

But, like most things in Washington, the devil is in the details.

In the past few weeks, multiple proposals have been offered by different groups of Democratic lawmakers as well as presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and from a coalition of two dozen European and American former senior officials from different parts of the ideological spectrum.

Nearly all of the proposals agree the Trump administration needs to do more to clarify to foreign businesses and banks exactly what types of medical items it is exempting from its sanctions regime.

These proposals, which vary in their technical scope, are offered in the hope of swaying President Donald Trump on the strategic advantages of tweaking or easing the sanctions he has imposed on Iran. As coronavirus infections have yet to peak in the United States, there is no expectation of Congress reconvening to take up a bill that would have the veto-proof support necessary to go over Trump’s head in ordering a relaxing of the sanctions.

[Congress clears measure ordering Trump to halt Iran hostilities]

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who led one of the more liberal proposals in late March that was co-signed by 10 of his Democratic colleagues, said he sees both a moral imperative to modify the sanctions as well as a hard-nosed realpolitik argument for doing so.

“The United States first and foremost just has a moral obligation to make sure that our foreign policy doesn’t result in the knowing death of innocent people,” the Senate Foreign Relations member said in a Tuesday video conference call organized by the liberal Pro-Israel group J Street. “And right now, our sanctions policy, because it is making it very hard, if not impossible for medical supplies to reach Iran is, in part, resulting in the death of individuals in that country who could be saved if our policy was different.”

Blame game

The Iranian regime is seen as trying to distract from its mismanagement of the initial public health response to the coronavirus pandemic by blaming U.S. sanctions.

Accurate numbers on infection and death rates from COVID-19 in Iran are hard to come by, and the lack of widespread testing and the Iranian government’s lack of credibility in the numbers it does share makes it hard to judge how bad the pandemic is in Iran.

This week, a member of Iran’s national coronavirus task force estimated that roughly 500,000 Iranians may be infected with the disease. But according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus dashboard, on Thursday there were 66,220 reported confirmed cases in the country and just under 4,110 deaths.

In some ways, experts say, the Iranian regime is relieved to once again be able to blame its woes on the United States after enduring months of popular street protests. In December, thousands took to the streets across the country in some of the strongest political unrest in decades to protest regime economic mismanagement, corruption and lethal attacks on civilians. Those protests were renewed in January after the Iranian military unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane filled with Iranian civilians and tried to cover up its role.

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“There are lots of young people in Iran who are no fans of this regime, who, in fact, reach out for a connection to America,” Murphy said. “Now they’re fed all sorts of propaganda by the Supreme Leader and his allies, but that propaganda is made a whole lot easier because of a U.S. sanctions policy that is coming down like a ton of bricks on the Iranian people, especially at this moment of crisis.”

Since withdrawing in 2018 from the 2015 multinational nuclear agreement with Iran, the Trump administration has intensified its efforts to cut off Tehran’s revenue sources from the export of oil and gas, curtail its access to the international financial system and generally scare off many foreign firms from engaging with or facilitating business transactions with Iran.

In a 2019 report, Human Rights Watch found that the administration’s financial sanctions had “drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment.”

Though the Trump administration says it has exemptions for humanitarian exports to Iran, in practice Human Rights Watch found that the exemptions “have failed to offset the strong reluctance of U.S. and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods.”

“The exception [for humanitarian trade] the Trump administration talked about is an incredibly narrow one,” Murphy said. “It’s an exception that, for instance, doesn’t count personal protective equipment as supplies exempt from U.S. sanctions.”

The administration argues that its tougher economic sanctions are necessary to pressure Tehran into accepting more limitations on its nuclear research program than those agreed to in the original 2015 pact with the Obama administration. The White House and key administration figures such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also want Iran to give up much of its ballistic missile work and its support for regional military proxies such as the Shite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

“We have done remarkable work to deny the regime the resources they need to continue to carry out their terror campaign,” Pompeo told reporters on Tuesday.

Calls for relief

In a memo released on Monday called “Iran’s Sanctions Relief Scam,” the State Department insisted that “Iran’s slick foreign influence campaign to obtain sanctions relief is not intended for the relief or health of the Iranian people but to raise funds for its terror operations.”

But history has shown that when the United States has allowed short-term, narrow sanctions relief to Iran for humanitarian and medical purposes, the vast amount of assistance has reached its intended recipients, according to Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of State and ambassador to multiple countries, in a conference call this week with reporters. Pickering is part of the European Leadership Network, which helped convene support from two dozen former European and U.S. officials for a raft of recommendations for sanctions relief. 

Following the massive 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, the Bush administration briefly suspended some sanctions to allow 150,000 pounds of medical supplies into the country. And in 2012 after another earthquake, the Obama administration lifted some financial sanctions for 45 days to allow U.S. nongovernmental organizations to send funds to Iranian charities providing humanitarian services.

The statement from the European Leadership Network and The Iran Project, a bipartisan U.S. organization that seeks to reduce tensions with Iran while preventing it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, lays out eight technical steps the Trump administration can take to facilitate the importation of medical supplies into Iran while still keeping the vast bulk of its sanctions regime in place.

Those steps include specifically stating which medical items are covered by the U.S. humanitarian relief channel, known as General License No. 8. Currently, a special license, which can take months to acquire, is needed from the Treasury Department before exporting things like full-face mask respirators and oxygen generators to Iran.

“There is no reason at this stage why the sanctions effort should interfere in a malign way with the people of Iran seeking to improve their health and deal with the pandemic and there is every reason in our view to support these particular approaches,” Pickering said.

Pickering and his co-signers, who include former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, are also calling for the Treasury Department to add more staff to its Office of Foreign Assets Control to speed up the processing of license requests for exports to Iran’s healthcare sector.

They also want the department to issue so-called comfort letters to international banks, manufacturers, shipping companies and insurers to make it clear they will not be found in violation of U.S. sanctions if they facilitate a humanitarian trade transaction with Iran.

The European Leadership Network also wants the administration to relax some of its stringent reporting requirements under the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement, which is the U.S. sponsored trade channel, with Switzerland, that allows humanitarian trade with Tehran. The leadership group argues that the terms under the Swiss facility are so onerous that they discourage Swiss financial institutions from moving transactions through the channel.

“Because of the onerous nature of the requirements around even humanitarian trade and the risk aversion of banks and transport companies and the suppliers of these [items] in other countries, Iran is basically at the back of the line in terms of securing a lot of these of supplies even though it is facing its acute outbreak earlier than other countries,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of the economic think tank Bourse & Bazaar, which supports business engagement between Europe and Iran. “For an Iranian importer, it could take two months to complete a transaction that an importer in another similar country could complete in about two weeks, and the reason for that is the onerous reporting requirements.”

Richard Nephew, a former principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department under the Obama administration, who worked with Batmanghelidj to develop the sanctions relief recommendations put out by the European Leadership Network and The Iran Project, said they were specifically designed to sidestep questions about whether Trump was right to withdraw from the nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions on Iran.

“If you look very carefully at these eight points, a lot of them are building on existing U.S. policy and redirecting it in what I think are constructive ways,” said Nephew in the conference call with Pickering and Batmanghelidj.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York and Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Menendez of New Jersey — two foreign policy moderates within the Democratic Party who voted against the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran — issued their own joint statement last week that echoes many of the proposals by the European Leadership Network. They are also calling for a temporary raising of the ceiling on the amount of funds that can be sent to Iran for humanitarian relief.

Biden has put forth a proposal along similar lines to the network's and the Engel-Menendez calls for technical modifications to the sanctions regime.

Meanwhile, the proposal pushed by Murphy and his 10 Senate colleagues would go further in calling for a three-month waiver on the sectoral sanctions Trump has imposed on broad swaths of Iran’s economy.

Going further still, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., joined with nearly three dozen other lawmakers in writing to Pompeo in late March to urge him to "substantially suspend sanctions on Iran during this global public health emergency in a humanitarian gesture to the Iranian people to better enable them to fight the virus.”

The Sanders letter calls for a relaxing of the sanctions that cover Iran’s banking and oil sectors as well as those impacting civilian industries. The sanctions suspension should last for the duration of the coronavirus health emergency, the letter said.

This report has been changed to make clear the role of The Iran Project, and of Richard Nephew, in supporting, and consulting on, respectively, the recommendations for easing Iran sanctions.