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Virus fuels calls for sanctions relief on Iran, Venezuela


AP  |  Miami 

From Caracas to Tehran, officials are calling on the Donald 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 US, 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 Centre 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 US policies, are causing immense harm.

American companies have been blocked from doing business with Iran and Venezuela for almost two years, after the Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers and launched a campaign seeking to oust Venezuela's socialist president, Nicols Maduro, for allegedly committing fraud in his 2018 re-election.

The escalating restrictions have drastically reduced oil revenue in both countries and led to tensions that, in the case of Iran, culminated in a January drone strike that killed a top Iranian general.

US 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 US 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 US to make clear its sanctions don't target humanitarian aid.

"Even amid this pandemic, the US 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.

US 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.

Far from pulling back, the Trump administration has been expanding its "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran, finding time in the middle of the virus frenzy to blacklist five companies based in China, Hong Kong and South Africa that it says are facilitating trade with Iran's petrochemical industry.

"This is a sort of tired regime talking point, saying that the sanctions are impacting their ability to deliver assistance for their people," said Brian Hook, the State Department's representative for Iran.

"If the regime is sincere about looking for resources to help the Iranian people, they could start by giving back some of the tens of billions of dollars they have stolen from the Iranian people."

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 US 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.

The virus' spread in Iran was exacerbated by days of denial from the government about its severity amid the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and attempts to boost turnout for February parliamentary elections. Hard-liners in its Shiite theocracy, meanwhile, have stormed shrines closed due to the virus as the public largely ignores guidance from health officials to stay home.

In Venezuela, the impact has been less severe only 77 confirmed cases and no deaths. But its healthcare system was already in shambles like the rest of the economy, with as many 70 per cent of hospitals reporting electricity and water shortages, so even a small disease outbreak can trigger major havoc.

Together the two countries control around 30 per cent of the world's petroleum reserves, so they are expected to be among the hardest hit from a halving of crude prices this month that reflects forecasts for a global recession.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Tue, March 24 2020. 02:38 IST