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US Senator Seeks Assurances Sanctions Not Hindering Iran Coronavirus Containment

Democratic presidential candidate Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at a town hall in Davenport, Iowa, February 1, 2020

In a letter to the Secretaries of State and Treasury on February 28, Senator Elizabeth Warren raised concerns that U.S. sanctions could hinder humanitarian transactions that would help counter and contain the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Iran.

According to her Senate website, in the letter Senator Warren raised concerns about the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran and asked Secretaries Steven Mnuchin and Mike Pompeo whether the U.S. is taking every reasonable step to ensure the availability of medicine and other non-sanctionable humanitarian items to the Iranian people to combat the coronavirus in Iran and throughout the Middle East, including whether businesses, financial institutions, or other entities have actually used the license issued pursuant to the humanitarian mechanism.

"I am concerned about the vulnerability of the Iranian people to the coronavirus and the potential for Iran's coronavirus cases to worsen the spread of the disease to neighboring countries, including regional allies, and to the rest of the world," Senator Warren who is running as a Democratic for the U.S. presidency said in her letter.

On Thursday the Department of Treasury granted a license to allow for certain humanitarian trade transactions involving Iran's sanctioned Central Bank in step with the formalization of the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA) which took effect on Thursday. SHTA allows food, medicine, and other humanitarian aid to be sent to Iran without violating U.S. sanctions.

Referring to the waiver, Senator Warren said the steps would appear on the surface to be sufficient but "the limited nature of the exceptions and the fact that trade in general with Iran has been circumscribed by U.S. sanctions may make it difficult for urgently needed medical goods to get to Iran to combat the coronavirus".

On Friday at a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States has offered to help with the coronavirus response in Iran but raised doubts about Tehran's willingness to share information.

"Their healthcare infrastructure is not robust and to date, their willingness to share information about what's really going on inside...Iran has not been robust, and I am very concerned is Iran that is not sharing information," Pompeo told the Committee.

Iran, however, immediately rejected the offer.

"The claim to help Iran in dealing with corona from a country that has created widespread pressure for the people of Iran and even closed the paths for buying medicine and medical equipment with their economic terrorism, is a ridiculous claim and a political-psychological game," Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Friday, according to the Mehr news agency.

Despite Washington's exemption of humanitarian goods, especially medicine and medical equipment from its punitive measures, international purchases of such supplies have been very difficult for Iran due to banks being wary of conducting any business with the Islamic Republic and falling foul of sanctions themselves.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced the completion of the initial financial transactions benefiting Iranian medical patients through a humanitarian channel in Switzerland in a press release on January 30.

According to the press release, Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that the United States was determined to ensure the Iranian people have access to food, life-saving medicines, and other humanitarian goods "despite the regime’s economic mismanagement and wasteful funding of malign activities across the region".

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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.