(CNSNews.com) – Former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday supported calls for the U.S. to lift sanctions against the Iranian regime because of the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that the humanitarian exception built into the sanctions is not sufficient.
He did so two days after his presidential primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, led a group of Democratic lawmakers including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.), urging the administration “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.”
As the U.S. and the world grapples with one of the worst public health crises in history, there are growing calls for an easing of U.S. sanctions against hostile regimes, especially Iran, one of the countries hardest-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Critics of the campaign are pushing back, drawing attention to the fact that the Iran sanctions have never applied to humanitarian aid, and pointing to the alleged theft by the regime of most of a one billion euro ($1.085 billion) European Union package sent to Iran last summer and intended for medical supplies.
They also note that the U.S. from early on has been offering humanitarian assistance to Iran as it deals with the pandemic. The regime has repeatedly rejected the offers.
In his statement calling for sanctions relief, Biden referred to the offers of aid, but said they were “insufficient if not backed by concrete steps to ensure the United States is not exacerbating this growing humanitarian crisis.”
He made no reference to the regime’s rejection of the assistance.
The administration first offered assistance to the Iranian people on February 28, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the proposal had been made formally via the Swiss government, which serves as the U.S. protecting power in Iran since diplomatic ties were severed in 1979.
“The United States calls on Iran to cooperate fully and transparently with international aid and health organizations,” he said then, underlining that donations to Iran intended to help relieve human suffering were exempt from U.S. sanctions.
“Supporting the Iranian people is and will remain among our top priorities.”
Tehran’s immediate response was a negative one. Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi called the U.S. offer “ridiculous,” and part of a “political-psychological game.”
At the time, Iran was reporting fewer than 250 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 26 deaths.
Today, Iran is reporting more than 50,400 cases, and 3,160 deaths – and those official figures are widely suspected to be far lower than the actual ones.
Over the weeks following the initial offer, Pompeo referred to the issue on a number of occasions. On March 17, he said that during a phone conversation that day with the head of the World Health Organization, “we talked expressly about Iran and how America might be able to help. We made a commitment to do everything we can to provide them with all that America can deliver for Iran. I hope they’ll accept that offer.”
Pompeo said he also hoped the regime would accept offers of help from other countries that “want to come help the Iranian people stay healthy and mitigate the risk that’s there.”
Several days later, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a speech explained his reasoning for rejecting the help: The U.S. offer may be part of a plot to spread the coronavirus further in Iran.
Khamenei cited a conspiracy theory – promoted by Chinese officials and state media among others – that the U.S. was responsible for the outbreak. He also aired another unfounded theory, that the U.S. when it supposedly created the coronavirus had used genetic data designed to target Iranians in particular.
Meanwhile, the regime has used the outbreak to launch a public relations push in a bid to get sanctions lifted.
Mousavi, the foreign ministry spokesman, has referred to U.S. policy as “medical terrorism,” as has Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
When Zarif did so on Twitter this week, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus used the platform to hit back.
“Stop lying. Stop stealing,” she said. “It’s not the sanctions. It’s the regime.”
In his statement, Biden conceded that humanitarian exceptions are in place for U.S. sanctions, but said that, “in practice, most governments and organizations are too concerned about running afoul of U.S. sanctions to offer assistance.”
In fact, a number of countries have sent medical and emergency health supplies to Iran in recent weeks, including Japan, France, Britain, Germany, Qatar, Turkey, the UAE, Russia, China, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan.
One of the reasons the banking sector may be skittish about transactions involving Iran has less to do with U.S. sanctions policy than with the Iranian regime’s ongoing support for terror groups.
In February, the global anti-money laundering and terror-financing watchdog, after holding off on acting since 2016, imposed “countermeasures” on Iran that include requirements for enhanced surveillance and reporting of financial transactions.
The 39-country Financial Action Task Force (FATF) took the step for several reasons, including the regime’s refusal to abandon an exemption on funding groups “attempting to end foreign occupation, colonialism and racism” – such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and militia proxies in Iraq and Yemen.
Last January, the U.S. and Swiss governments announced that a humanitarian channel enabling Swiss companies to send medicine and food to Iran without risking U.S. sanctions had begun operating. The first shipment involved $2.5 million worth of drugs for cancer and organ transplant patients.
‘Very sad what’s happening’
At a news conference on Wednesday, President Trump said, "It's very sad what's happening in Iran."
Asked if he would consider suspending sanctions, Trump said, "I think we can work out a deal with Iran very quickly. All they have to do is call. I just think that, you know, they're proud people, and the leadership is proud.
“...They're having a hard time picking up the phone or they're having a hard time setting up the meeting, but they could fix their country pretty easily. And we don't want hostility, but if they are hostile to us they are going to regret it like they've never regretted anything before."
Earlier in the news conference, Trump warned Iran that there would be an even bigger response than the last time, if Iran or its proxies attack U.S. interests. "It would be a very bad thing for them if they did it," Trump warned.