Democrats push back on Iran sanctions amid coronavirus fears 

March 28, 2020 - 14:1

Top Democrats in Congress are urging the Trump administration to ease sanctions on Iran, Venezuela, and other countries badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic, citing the need to provide medical supplies and humanitarian support, Foreign Policy reported on Friday.

In a stream of several letters aimed at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top U.S. officials, Democratic members of Congress including presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are pushing for the administration to grant clearly outlined waivers from American sanctions.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy also spearheaded a call by several Democrats to the Trump administration to ease U.S. sanctions against countries, including Iran and Venezuela, hit hard by coronavirus, saying the measures are hampering the free flow of medicines and other humanitarian supplies to the neediest as the pandemic worsens.

“Helping these nations save lives during this crisis is the right thing to do from a moral perspective, but it is also the right thing to do from a national security perspective,” Murphy wrote in the letter sent Thursday to Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

“By allowing our sanctions to contribute to the exceptional pain and suffering brought about by the coronavirus outbreaks in both nations, we play into the anti-Americanism.”

The letter was co-signed by several Senate Democrats, including Chris Van Hollen, Tim Kaine, and Patrick Leahy.

An early draft of the letter sent by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez that was seen by Foreign Policy also calls for a temporary suspension of sanctions, including on the banking and oil sectors that have been heavily targeted since President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. The letter is expected to be sent to Pompeo and Mnuchin early next week.

Murphy is asking the administration to hold off on the enforcement of sanctions for 90 days that could halt “a rapid humanitarian response” to the spread of the coronavirus in Iran. He also wants the Treasury Department to ease penalties against information technology companies that could provide information on treating or preventing the disease.

Over 35,000 cases of the novel coronavirus have spread across Iran. It has also killed more than 2,500 people.

Amid the crisis, Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for $5 billion in critical funds and for supplies of masks, respirators, and other medical equipment.

The debate over whether to modify U.S. sanctions on Iran spilled out onto the editorial pages of major American papers this week, with the New York Times editorial board calling for the Trump administration to allow an IMF loan to move forward and for technical assistance. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board ran a rejoinder on Wednesday.

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Tuesday called for an easing of sanctions against countries such as Iran to allow their medical systems to fight the disease and limit its global spread. 

Michelle Bachelet said humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be authorized for essential medical equipment and supplies to avoid the collapse of any national healthcare system.