As coronavirus spreads, former U.S. diplomats and European leaders call for easing sanctions against Iran

“Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has upended every aspect of the global economy and of human lives and health, it has drastically changed the impact of a U.S. policy designed for a different purpose and conditions,” the statement said. “Just because Iran has managed the crisis badly, that does not make its humanitarian needs and our security ones any the less. Targeted sanctions relief would be both morally right and serve the health and security interests of the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world.”

The signatories represented decades of diplomatic and national security expertise. Among them is former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, two former defense secretaries and a U.S. and a European official who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that President Trump withdrew from in 2018 before reimposing old sanctions and adding new ones. The European signatories include former prime ministers, foreign ministers, ambassadors and secretary generals of NATO.

The mounting coronavirus-related deaths have fueled a growing number of pleas to at least temporarily ease sanctions against countries whose economies and health care systems have been devastated under the dual hammer of heavy U.S. and international measures and collapsing oil prices.

U.S. officials have resisted relenting on its “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions, and added more against Iran and Venezuela in recent weeks. State Department officials have defended the measures by noting humanitarian and medical aid is exempt.

The statement released Monday argues that the coronavirus sweeping the world, infecting more than a million people so far in almost every country on earth, upends the utility of such punishing sanctions.

“Though never intended to kill,” the statement says, U.S. sanctions have compromised Iran’s health care system and its ability to treat patients. Despite the humanitarian exceptions, it continues, importing medicine and medical equipment is a slow, cumbersome and expensive process that discourages companies worried about overstepping boundaries and being sanctioned themselves.

“We must remember that an outbreak anywhere impacts people everywhere,” the statement says. “In turn, reaching across borders to save lives is imperative for our own security and must override political differences among governments.”

State Department officials have said Iran has repeatedly rejected offers of U.S. assistance during the pandemic, though they have provided no details of what was offered and under what conditions. The statement dismisses the U.S. offers, calling it “unrealistic” to expect Tehran to ask Washington for help when tensions and mutual distrust are so high.

“Offering aid with one hand while taking away much more through the pressure of crippling economic sanctions with the other is not a coherent posture,” the statement said.

The statement was drawn up by two groups — The Iran Project, a U.S. organization working to foster dialogue between the United States and Iran and take a bipartisan approach to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; and the European Leadership Network, a London-based group of leaders seeking practical solutions to political and security challenges.

The signatories include Wendy Sherman, a former senior State Department official, and Federica Mogherini, the former foreign policy chief for the European Union. Both were involved in negotiations with Iran for the 2015 nuclear deal, which gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.

The statement also was signed by Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister and director of the World Health Organization; Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Thomas Shannon, who was the acting secretary of state before the Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson.

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