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As Coronavirus Death Toll Continues to Rise in Iran, Global Calls Mount for US to Lift 'Immoral' Sanctions

"Actively denying an entire country medicine and humanitarian goods and continuing to pummel their economy in midst of global pandemic is the height of 'malign behavior' in my book."

People wear face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak after deaths and new confirmed cases revealed in Qom, Iran on March 17, 2020.

People wear face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak after deaths and new confirmed cases revealed in Qom, Iran on March 17, 2020. Fatima Masumeh Shrine is closed for visitors to prevent the spread of the virus. (Photo: Fatemah Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

As the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak continues to rise in Iran, one of the world's most impacted countries, global pressure is mounting on the Trump administration to ease economic sanctions that Iranian officials and other critics charge has hampered the government's ability to manage the public health crisis.

In response to the latest COVID-19 figures out of Iran, American journalist Glenn Greenwald declared in a tweet Tuesday that "strangling Iran with sanctions, [which] has the direct effect of preventing them from providing services to sick and dying people, is monstrous."

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that "roughly nine out of 10 cases in the Middle East come from the Islamic Republic, which has reported over 16,000 people infected and at least 988 deaths amid fears that cases may still be underreported." Globally, the infections have topped 185,000 and more than 7,300 people have died.

"Although Iran has one of the Mideast's best medical services, its hospitals appear to be overwhelmed and authorities have asked for 172 million masks from abroad," according to the AP. "It also has asked the International Monetary Fund for $5 billion, the first such loan for Iran since 1962."

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who last week accused the United States of "medical terrorism," took to Twitter Tuesday to argue that abiding by Washington's sanctions is "immoral" and urge other countries around the world to disregard them. Ariel Gold of the U.S.-based peace group CodePink echoed his call.

Gold and CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin wrote for Common Dreams Friday that by the time the COVID-19 cases appeared in Iran "the country's economy, including its healthcare system, had already been devastated by U.S. sanctions."

As Gold and Benjamin explained:

The reimposition of sanctions after the Trump administration's withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018 has had a devastating impact on the economy and on the lives of ordinary Iranians. The Iranian currency, the rial, lost 80 percent of its value. Food prices doubled, rents soared, and so did unemployment. The decimation of Iran's economy, reducing the sale of oil from a high of 2.5 million barrels a day in early 2018 to about 250,000 barrels today, has left the government with scant resources to cover the enormous costs of dealing with direct medical treatment for patients suffering from the coronavirus, as well as supporting workers who are losing their jobs and helping businesses going bankrupt.

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Humanitarian aid—food and medicine—was supposed to be exempt from sanctions. But that hasn't been the case. Shipping and insurance companies have been unwilling to risk doing business with Iran, and banks have not been able or willing to process payments.

They noted that "even before Iran was unable to procure enough testing kits, respiratory machines, antiviral medicines, and other supplies to slow the spread of the coronavirus and save lives, Iranians were having a hard time getting access to life-saving medications." Although the U.S. Treasury Department announced in late February that it would allow certain humanitarian trade transactions to go through Iran's central bank, Gold and Benjamin called that "far too little far too late."

"The Iranian government is not without blame," Gold and Benjamin added. "It grossly mishandled the beginning of the outbreak, downplaying the danger, putting out false information, and even arresting individuals who raised alarms." Still, CodePink members and others continue to demand an end to U.S. sanctions.

Jamal Abdi, president of the U.S.-based National Iranian American Council, tweeted Monday that "actively denying an entire country medicine and humanitarian goods and continuing to pummel their economy in midst of global pandemic is the height of 'malign behavior' in my book." He also shared a Reuters report on U.S. sanctions.

Citing unnamed U.S. officials and diplomats, Reuters reported Monday that despite Iran's ongoing humanitarian crisis and growing concern from the international community, the Trump administration is unlikely to grant broad relief from sanctions, particularly given the president's "maximum pressure" strategy with Iran.

Reuters noted that China—the country where the outbreak began and that has been hardest hit by the crisis—is among the countries aiding Iran with its response to COVID-19 and pressuring Trump to immediately lift sanctions. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted Monday that "continued sanction on Iran is against humanitarianism and hampers Iran's epidemic response and delivery of humanitarian aid by the U.N. and other organizations."

In a Monday statement reported on by the Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency, the Russian Foreign Ministry also called on the U.S. to provide immediate relief, arguing that "the global pandemic is not a time for settling geopolitical accounts, especially those that have no basis, invented in Washington for the purpose of satisfying their own ambitions."

"Illegal unilateral U.S. sanctions, imposed since May 2018 as part of the 'maximum pressure' campaign, are a powerful obstacle to effective fight against the infection. The reason for the many victims, caused by it, lies not only in the disease itself, but also in the fact that the U.S., purposefully hinder the resistance [to the coronavirus]," the Russian statement added. "Millions of Iranian citizens were cut off from the possibility of purchasing necessary medical supplies, no matter how hard Washington tried to distort it. The anti-human policy of the U.S. provokes deep regret, alarm, and serious concern."

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