On March 24, the United Nations called on the international community to lift sanctions on countries, such as Iran, with a coronavirus crisis. “At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended. In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us,” said Michelle Bachelet, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. She emphasized the need for “prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies.” At least four countries have also urged the United States to ease sanctions on Iran.
It is vital to avoid the collapse of any country's medical system – UN Human Rights Chief @mbachelet calls for easing of sanctions to enable medical systems to fight #COVID19 and limit global contagion. Read 👉https://t.co/FNGNxez2xd pic.twitter.com/CRM5riDqZG— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) March 24, 2020
In November 2018, President Donald Trump re-imposed U.S. sanctions that had been lifted, in 2016, as part of the nuclear deal struck in 2015. By the end of 2018, Washington had also imposed 20 other types of sanctions as part of its "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran. The new sanctions hit Iran’s national airline, nuclear and ballistic missile programs, oil smuggling networks and financiers linked to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).
Humanitarian goods, such as medical, educational and humanitarian supplies, have always been exempt from U.S. sanctions. But foreign banks have been hesitant to finance business with Iran, in turn limiting Iran’s ability to buy and ship goods not limited by sanctions.
Iranian leaders have called U.S. sanctions “economic terrorism” that impedes their response to COVID-19. “U.S. sanctions against Iran -and following them by other nations- are not only illegal and contrary to U.N. Security Council resolution, but also unethical and inhumane,” President Hassan Rouhani said in a letter to world leaders on March 14. “It’s inhumane dimension today concerns no longer only the Iranian people, but the people of the region, and it encompasses other countries as well; this is not a collective punishment of the Iranian people, but a collective punishment against all humanity.”
China, Iran’s most important trading partner, was the first country to call for the easing of sanctions. "Continued sanction on Iran was against humanitarianism and hampers Iran's epidemic response & delivery of humanitarian aid by the UN and other organizations," China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted on March 16.
We urge the US to immediately lift unilateral sanction on Iran. Continued sanction is against humanitarianism and hampers Iran’s epidemic response & delivery of humanitarian aid by the UN and other organizations. pic.twitter.com/O1dVvgAZX4— Spokesperson发言人办公室 (@MFA_China) March 16, 2020
Pakistan, on Iran’s eastern border, urged the U.S. to lift sanctions. “I would stress and insist to the international community to lift the sanctions on Iran,” Prime Minister Imran Khan said on March 20. “It is very unjust they are dealing with such a large outbreak on one side, and on the other they are facing international sanctions,” he told reporters in Islamabad.
Russia, one of Iran’s key partners, also urged the United States to remove sanctions. “We called and are calling on the United States to abandon the inhumane practice of applying unilateral sanctions against Iran, which has an acute shortage of means to solve urgent health issues in the current situation of the spread of the coronavirus,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on March 21.
On March 18, Britain privately asked the United States to ease sanctions to help Iran fight the virus, according to a report by The Guardian.
In October 2019, Human Rights Watch reported that U.S. sanctions were “causing serious hardships for ordinary Iranians. The 47-page report criticized broad restrictions on financial transactions and aggressive rhetoric from the Trump Administration, which has “drastically constrained” Iran’s ability to finance humanitarian imports.
“Trump administration officials claim they stand with the Iranian people, but the overbroad and burdensome US sanctions regime is harming Iranians’ right to health, including access to life-saving medicines,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The comprehensive web of US sanctions has led banks and companies to pull back from humanitarian trade with Iran, leaving Iranians who have rare or complicated diseases unable to get the medicine and treatment they require.”
In early 2020, the United States took steps to facilitate the flow of assistance to the Iran. On January 30, the United States, with the help of Switzerland, announced a new humanitarian channel that would ensure the sale and delivery of medicine to Iran. On February 27, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Hook said that Washington was increasing efforts to deliver aid; he said that two American companies were ready to sell medicine to Iran.
On February 28, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a formal offer had been conveyed via Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran. The gesture “underscores our ongoing commitment to address health crises and prevent the spread of infectious diseases,” he said.
But U.S. officials have repeatedly dismissed international appeals to lift sanctions. On March 20, a reporter asked Trump if he would consider sanctions relief. “They know the answer, the leaders of Iran, they know the answer to your question,” he said at a White House briefing. Pompeo claimed that Washington was “doing everything we can” to facilitate the humanitarian assistance and to facilitate financial. “There is no sanction on medicines going to Iran, there is no sanctions on humanitarian assistance going into that country. They’ve got a terrible problem there and we want that humanitarian, medical assistance to get to the people of Iran,” he added.
But on March 22, Iran rejected the U.S. offer. “Several times Americans have offered to help us to fight the pandemic. That is strange because you face shortages in America. Also you are accused of creating this virus,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. “I do not know whether it is true. But when there is such an allegation, can a wise man trust you and accept your help offer? ... You could be giving medicines to Iran that spread the virus or cause it to remain permanently.”