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Iranian medical personnel cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for an elderly woman who has infected by the new coronavirus disease in a COVID-19 section of the Rasoul-e-Akram hospital in western Tehran at midnight on December 14, 2020. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

U.S. sanctions against Iran are impeding that country's efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Here, staff at a Tehran hospital perform CPR on an elederly woman infected with the coronavirus. (Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Citing 'Moral and Public Health Imperative,' Progressive Lawmakers Press Biden on Sanctions Relief

The 27 Democrats called for "much-needed and overdue changes to the way we use sanctions as a foreign policy tool."

Brett Wilkins

A group of 27 progressive U.S. lawmakers on Thursday sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to "consider the humanitarian impacts of sanctions," which they say have "catastrophic" consequences during the coronavirus pandemic. 

 "Far too often and for far too long, sanctions have been imposed as a knee-jerk reaction without a measured and considered assessment of their impacts."
—Lawmakers' letter

Citing Biden's announcement on his second day in office that his administration would review all existing U.S. sanctions and their impact on the pandemic, the lawmakers argued in the letter (pdf) that "it is both a moral and public health imperative that our efforts to combat Covid-19 are global in scope because the pandemic's economic consequences require international cooperation."

Critics have long denounced what they call the inconsistent and hypocritical application of sanctions by the U.S. government. In addition to punishing some of the world's most repressive regimes, including those in North Korea and Syria, successive American administrations have also subjected countries including Cuba and Venezuela to sanctions, while supporting nations such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, whose governments commit severe human rights violations.

In Iran, everyday people suffer tremendously due to economic sanctions based on false nuclear proliferation claims, while nearby Israel—the only Middle Eastern nation with nuclear weapons—receives billions of dollars in annual U.S. military aid. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already devastating impact of sanctions on the people of targeted nations. 

"The pandemic does not adhere to borders, nor does it account for complex geopolitical realities," the legislators wrote in the letter, adding that "until the virus is eradicated everywhere, it is not eradicated anywhere." They continued:

We are also hopeful that this review indicates a willingness on the part of your administration to consider the humanitarian impacts of sanctions more broadly. Far too often and for far too long, sanctions have been imposed as a knee-jerk reaction without a measured and considered assessment of their impacts. Sanctions are easy to put in place, but notoriously difficult to lift. 

And while they have demonstrably harmed civilian populations, caused authoritarian governments to further constrict civil spaces and repress civil and political rights, squeezed the ability of humanitarian organizations to provide support during crises and disasters, made basic staples such as food, medicine, and gasoline prohibitively expensive, created and fueled black market economies, and driven our rivals deeper into dependency on one another, we have historically not conducted regular assessments to determine how sanctions connect to the policy outcomes they seek to achieve so that it's often difficult to demonstrably prove their net benefit to national interests and security.

"The Covid-19 pandemic, as an existential threat with no geographic or political limits, has laid bare the interconnectedness of people around the world," the lawmakers concluded. "We are profoundly grateful for the leadership you have demonstrated by ordering this comprehensive review of existing sanctions, eagerly await the results of the review, and stand ready to work with your administration to make much-needed and overdue changes to the way we use sanctions as a foreign policy tool."

The lawmakers' letter does not mention any countries by name. It comes a day after Biden ordered new sanctions against the military regime in Myanmar, which earlier this month seized power in a coup and declared martial law in the nation's largest cities.

"Broad-based sanctions are cruel forms of collective punishment at any time. During a pandemic, they should be unthinkable."
—Win Without War

The letter was led by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rep. Chuy García (D-Ill.), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). It was also signed by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Democratic Reps. Karen Bass (Calif.), Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Joaquin Castro (Texas), David Cicilline (R.I.), Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (Az.), Hank Johnson (Ga.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Mondaire Jones (N.Y.), Ro Khanna (Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Alan Lowenthal (Calif.), Jim McGovern (Mass.), Gwen Moore (Wis.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.), and Peter Welch (Vt.). 

The groups Alliance for Cuba Engagement and Respect, American Friends Service Committee, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Demand Progress, Just Foreign Policy, Mennonite Central Committee, National Iranian American Council, Peace Action, and Win Without War supported the letter. 


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