As the death toll from the "horrific" earthquake that struck the Iran-Iraq border earlier this week climbs above 500, and as President Donald Trump remains entirely silent on the matter, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and four Democratic senators sent a letter on Thursday to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanding that the White House waive certain sanctions on Iran and allow aid to reach those desperately in need.
"After earthquakes in 2003 and 2012, the United States demonstrated its compassion and goodwill by offering assistance to the Iranian people and allowing private relief donations," the senators wrote. "This time should be no different."
While the 7.3 magnitude quake affected both Iran and Iraq, Iran bore the brunt of the overall destruction and casualties.
Under the current sanctions regime, Iranian-Americans living in the U.S. are prohibited from delivering funds to their friends and family members. As Al Jazeera reported on Thursday, several attempts by Iranian-Americans to set up fundraisers for Iran in the days following the earthquake have been stymied by U.S. Treasury Department rules.
"The way it is now, it is extremely difficult," Tara Kangarlou, a New York-based Iranian-American journalist, said of the economic restrictions. "These are the moments that you realize how political tug of war are hurting ordinary Iranians."
As for official U.S. government assistance, the Trump White House has been relatively quiet; the Treasury Department called the quake "tragic" in a statement to the Associated Press, but did not say whether the administration plans to mount any kind of response. Trump, himself, has not said a word about the quake, which Sanders and his Democratic colleagues noted was "the world's deadliest of the year."
In addition to killing hundreds and injuring over 9,000, a report from European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations found that the tremor damaged 12,000 buildings in Iran and Iraq.
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Shortly after the earthquake struck, Sanders highlighted the "growing tensions" between the U.S. and Iran—particularly following Trump's decision to decertify the Iran deal—and argued that providing relief to the Iranian people following such a devastating event "would be an important act of friendship."
Read the senators' full letter:
We write today concerning the recent earthquake that struck Iran on November 12. The latest reports indicate over 500 dead and thousands wounded, making this earthquake the world's deadliest of the year. We urge you temporarily waive any existing restrictions that would impede relief donations in order to speed the delivery of aid.
While the earthquake affected both Iran and Iraq, most of the casualties are on the Iranian side of the border. After earthquakes in 2003 and 2012, the United States demonstrated its compassion and goodwill by offering assistance to the Iranian people and allowing private relief donations. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama both temporarily waived sanctions, and the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued general licenses to simplify aid delivery.
Under the Bush administration, an OFAC license authorized U.S. persons to provide cash donations to nongovernmental organizations, U.S. and non-U.S., assisting with relief efforts in Iran. At the time, OFAC also worked with aid organizations to clarify rules on donations of food and medicine and which Iranian entities could receive aid and eased banking constraints to ensure the timely receipt of donations in Iran. While we understand that a general license issued by OFAC in 2013 allows for U.S. nongovernment organization to deliver aid to Iran, we urge you make it easier for U.S. citizens to contribute to nongovernment organizations not based in the United States that are currently providing relief aid to earthquake victims in Iran.
Despite decades of animosity and no formal diplomatic relations, the United States has routinely offered to help the Iranian people in times of need. This time should be no different. We ask that you direct the Department of State to assist in aid efforts and to coordinate such efforts with OFAC and other relevant agencies in order to ensure aid arrives quickly.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your timely response.