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Coronavirus Epidemic Pressure May Prompt Iran To Make A Humanitarian Deal With US

People wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of coronavirus, as they sit in a metro in Tehran, March 17, 2020

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Tuesday March 17 that Tehran may be considering releasing some Americans it has been keeping in jail for several years.

Iran has still not officially reacted to Pompeo's statement. Nevertheless, there may be indications that the Americans in jail may see the light of the day outside prisons sooner rather than later.

While making the statement, Pompeo also said that Washington was ready to help the Islamic Republic deal with the coronavirus outbreak. The United States has repeatedly offered to help Iran which is badly hit by the spread of COVID-19, but some Iranian officials including the foreign ministry spokesman have rejected the offer.

Mike Pompeo had called on Iran on March 10 "to immediately release on humanitarian grounds all wrongfully detained Americans as COVID-19 spreads to Iranian prisons," adding that "their detention defies basic human decency."

He further said that "any nation considering humanitarian assistance to Iran should seek the release of all dual and foreign nationals."

During the past week two Iranian officials hinted that Tehran is in a dire economic situation and badly needs cash.

The Governor of the Central Bank of Iran, Abdolnasser Hemmati, wrote to the International Monetary Fund, calling for a $5 billion loan for the first time in six decades.

Hemmati said Iran needed the money to help it fight the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

A couple of days later, Health Minister Saeed Namaki said his ministry needed €250 million to provide medical supplies for the country to cope with the outbreak, which has claimed at least 1,700 lives and infected close to 35,000 people, according to Radio Farda’s independent estimates.

Even before the outbreak Iran was experiencing its worst ever economic crisis as a result of U.S. sanctions, as Tehran refused to agree to negotiate a new deal with the West to limit its nuclear and military ambitions.

On Tuesday, Iran temporarily freed British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who has been in jail for fictitious charges since 2016. She is supposed to be housebound as a GPS tied to her ankle would alert security officials if she moves out of her parents' home in Tehran further than 300 meters.

With a new decision by the Iranian Judiciary to pardon political prisoners with sentences less than five years in jail, she might even be allowed to leave Iran, although this is still not clear.

Other political prisoners, including one of the environmentalists in jail since February 2018 has reportedly been released and there are anecdotal accounts about the release of more political prisoners.

Iranians wearing face masks and protective gloves shopping ahead of the Persian New Year Nowrouz at the grand bazaar in Tehran, March 18, 2020
Iranians wearing face masks and protective gloves shopping ahead of the Persian New Year Nowrouz at the grand bazaar in Tehran, March 18, 2020

The only official meeting announced last week with Iranian officials took place when the Swiss ambassador who is the head of the U.S. interest section in Tehran was summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry after U.S. aircraft attacked Iran-backed militias at the border between Iraq and Syria in response to an earlier attack that killed three American and British servicemen in Iraq.

Whether anything else was discussed in that or later meetings is everyone's guess. But although U.S. officials have said repeatedly that there are no back channels for negotiations between Iran and the United States, both Tehran and Washington know that some of Iran's well-wishing neighbors have been always interested in helping them solve problems for humanitarian reasons.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reiterating last week what he had said in September about the possibility of a prisoner swap could be another indication that Iranians are really weighing the decision to release Americans.

As the Iranian New Year is fast approaching, and as everyone in Iran, the United States and the rest of the world are concerned about the safety of their loved ones while an outbreak is claiming lives regardless of political borders and disputes, there seems to be an opportunity for Tehran and Washington to help each other on humanitarian grounds before hardliners on either side could sabotage bridge-building as they have done in numerous occasions over the past 40 years.

All this could be a prelude to what some American families have been waiting for several years now: Seeing their loved ones wrongfully held in Iran coming home.

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    Behrouz Turani

    Behrouz Turani is a British-Iranian writer and journalist as well as a consultant on Iran's political dynamics and the Iranian media landscape.