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Backlash to Trump use of sanctions as coronavirus spreads

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  • The Trump administration has heaped sanctions on its international foes, seeking to change their behavior.
  • With the spread of the coronavirus, calls for the US to reconsider how it uses those sanctions, and to avoid worsening a growing humanitarian crisis, have grown.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump has aggressively used sanctions since taking office, leveling them against US foes and even threatening to use them against partners and allies.

But as the coronavirus spreads, taxing healthcare systems even in advanced countries, those sanctions are getting renewed criticism as an aggravating factor for the pandemic.

Iran is one of the countries that has been hardest hit by the coronavirus. Its death toll is officially more than 2,200, but health workers there say the government is trying to obscure the true total. Iranian researchers have estimated that the outbreak there won’t peak until late May and could kill 3.5 million people.

The Trump administration, which withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, has imposed sanctions to block Iranian financial transactions, business dealings, and access to foreign reserves — sanctions announced on March 18 were meant to deprive Tehran of “critical income from its petrochemical industry” and further its “economic and diplomatic isolation” — but these measures have also limited imports of medical equipment and medicines.

The Trump administration has also repeatedly sanctioned the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and members of his inner circle, who the US accuses of involvement in corruption and drug trafficking. The US Department of Justice recently indicted Maduro and other officials on conspiracy and drug charges.

In addition to those individuals, the US has targeted Venezuela’s oil industry, which accounts for more than 95% of its export revenue — money used to buy vital imports like food and medicine. The coronavirus has spread rapidly there since the first case was diagnosed in mid-March, and Venezuelan doctors say the health system will be overwhelmed.

‘Solidarity not exclusion’

Venezuela water coronavirus

A man use a skateboard to move a bucket of water during a national quarantine in response to the spread of the coronavirus, in Caracas, March 23, 2020.

REUTERS/Manaure Quintero


Iran, which has denied the severity of its outbreak, and Venezuela, where Maduro has presided over the deterioration of the healthcare system, bear responsibility for their handling of the coronavirus. But US sanctions imposed are seen as restricting their ability to get needed supplies and as chilling third-party interest in providing them through legal channels.

With the spread of the pandemic, there have been a litany of calls for the US to relax or remove those sanctions.

In a letter to leaders of Group of 20 countries this month, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for the waiving of sanctions to ensure access to food, essential health supplies, and medical support.

“This is the time for solidarity not exclusion,” Guterres wrote. “Let us remember that we are only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world.”

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Chile, also this month called for broad sectoral sanctions to be reevaluated for countries facing the pandemic.

Such action was “vital to avoid the collapse of any country’s medical system,” Bachelet said. “In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.”

The European Union, members of which have been dismayed by Trump’s approach to Iran, plans to provide 20 million euros in humanitarian aid to Iran and to support Tehran’s request for financial help from the IMF.

Those actions were announced by EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell, who said last week that “countries like Venezuela or Iran may well collapse without our support.”

“This means we should ensure they have access to IMF assistance. And with Iran, we need to make sure that legitimate humanitarian trade can proceed despite US sanctions,” Borrell said.

The prime minister of Pakistan has called on the US to lift sanctions on Tehran, and Russia and China have capitalized on the backlash, calling on the US to lift sanctions on both Venezuela and Iran.

Sanctions on top of sanctions

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a news conference at the State Department, March 17, 2020.

Associated Press


The US has rejected those calls and argued that its sanctions don’t block humanitarian goods. Washington has offered aid to Iran, which Iran rejected, but made no such offers to Maduro, who the US does not recognize as Venezuela’s president, instead working with Juan Guaido, who the US and dozens of other countries recognize as interim leader.

“We’re constantly trying to make sure we have our policies right,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday when asked about potential sanctions relief, adding that the US could rethink those policies in the future.

“When it comes to humanitarian assistance — medical devices, equipment, pharmaceuticals, things that people need in these difficult times — those are not sanctioned anywhere at anytime that I’m aware of,” Pompeo said.

But sanctions as they’re written and their effect in practice are different.

“The administration is leaning on this argument that humanitarian aid is exempted from the sanctions, but sanctions more broadly have a chilling effect on how the international community is willing to deal with countries like” North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela, said Ned Price, a National Security Council official during the Obama administration, on a conference call hosted last week by the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

“Despite the humanitarian carve-outs and exemptions, you will find a great deal of hesitation and trepidation on the part of the international community to actually provide that [aid] for fear that they might run afoul of US sanctions,” Price said. “I think that’s a huge challenge and part of the reason these countries are not going to get the aid they need.”

Sanctions targeting weapons proliferation or individuals can be effective, but sanctions targeting economic sectors, like an oil industry, spread the pain without necessarily changing a government’s behavior, said Van Jackson, a senior lecturer in international relations at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

“Most of the sanctions regime on Iran and on North Korea … you have targeted sanctions layered on top of broad sanctions, and it’s the broad sanctions that kill everybody,” Jackson said on a recent episode of his podcast.

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