MIAMI, Fla. – From Caracas to Tehran, officials are calling on the 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 U.S., 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 Center 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 U.S. 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, Nicolás 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.
U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. to make clear its sanctions don't target humanitarian aid.
“Even amid this pandemic, the U.S. 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.
U.S. 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 U.S. 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 health care system was already in shambles like the rest of the economy, with as many 70% of hospitals reporting electricity and water shortages, so even a small disease outbreak can trigger major havoc.
Together the two countries control around 30% 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.
Underscoring the economic fragility, both have gone hat in hand to the International Monetary Fund seeking billions in emergency loans.
Iran's request, its first since 1962, underscores how overwhelmed what was considered one of the Middle East’s best medical systems has become, even as authorities so far have refused to impose nationwide — or even citywide — quarantines in the nation of 80 million people.
Maduro, who only a month ago was railing against the IMF as a tool of U.S. imperialism, also sought help from the international lending body. But his request was rejected in less than 10 hours, with the IMF saying there is no clarity among its 189 members whether he or Juan Guaidó, the U.S.-backed head of Venezuela's opposition-dominated congress, is the country's lawful leader.
Those calling for sanctions relief say the political fight needs to be put aside to prevent even more people crossing into neighboring Colombia and joining the almost 5 million Venezuelans who have fled the economic calamity in recent years,
“Even if you agree with the rationale for sanctions, it makes little sense to pile on in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Francisco Rodriguez, a Venezuelan economist who opposes Maduro and recently launched Oil For Venezuela, a U.S.-based group lobbying for greater assistance to the most vulnerable.
There is precedent for suspending U.S. sanctions in times of crisis. In 2003, President George W. Bush temporarily did so after an earthquake near the Iranian city of Bam killed thousands. The move cleared the way for U.S. military planes to land in Iran for the first time since the 1979 revolution, delivering aid.
Instead of easing sanctions, the U.S. has been offering aid to Iran. But those offers were angrily rejected Sunday by Iran's supreme leader, who took the opportunity to air an unfounded conspiracy theory that the virus was made by America. A similar theory was propagated by Maduro last month.
“Who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication?” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. “Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more.”
Despite Venezuelan attempts to reach out to the Trump administration, no such aid offers have been made to Maduro, according to a senior U.S. official. Instead, all assistance is being channeled through Guaidó and a plan to contain the spread of the coronavirus will be revealed in the coming days as well as additional sanctions on Maduro's inner circle, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss future actions.
Despite the campaigns against the sanctions, Iranians and Venezuelans also increasingly blame their own governments' failures for their dire situation.
Anger with Iran's government has led to sporadic protests, such as when Iranian authorities denied for days they had shot down a Ukrainian jetliner in January, killing all 176 people on board.
In Venezuela, the economy has been cratering for years due to bad policies, mismanagement and corruption. The country has seen a steep rise in malaria cases amid a resurgence of long-eliminated preventable diseases. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there have been reports of scattered looting across the country as food and gasoline grow scarce.
“Venezuela is facing two tragedies: one caused by the coronavirus and the other by Maduro,” Julio Borges, an exiled lawmaker who is serving as Guaidó’s foreign policy coordinator, said in an interview.
“Maduro claims he’s the victim of U.S. sanctions, but in reality he’s the one who has destroyed our health system. Now it’s up to us to rescue Venezuela from these two evils.”
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.