The COVID-19 Pandemic Prompts Debate over Iran Sanctions

The spread of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, has thrown the world into disarray and exposed the need for the United States to rethink its relationship with the international community. This reconsideration extends to Iran which, for four decades, has generally remained in a perpetual state of conflict with the United States. However, Iran’s health care infrastructure and state institutions—already struggling under broad US sanctions—are nearly overwhelmed by the spread of COVID-19 and most of the international community has called on Washington to relax sanctions to allow Tehran greater resources to fight this global pandemic.

As was outlined in a recent report, members of Congress, particularly progressives, have been vocal advocates for Iran sanctions relief. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) spearheaded a letter that received over 30 signatures—written to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin—while Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) crafted a separate letter to the administration detailing how US sanctions on Iran—and also Venezuela—are reducing those states’ abilities to fight the coronavirus. The administration and its supporters outside of government argue that all of the necessary sanctions exceptions are in place to allow for the free flow of humanitarian goods like food, medicine, and medical equipment and thus sanctions do not need to be relaxed. While these sanctions do exempt such goods, in practice, companies have been hesitant to facilitate any transaction with Iranian entities for fear of being exposed to sanctions themselves. Indeed, this fear stifled trade to such a degree that the United States worked with Switzerland to establish a trade mechanism for these goods, as did a group of European states.

Even while officials around the globe call for relaxing existing sanctions, the Trump Administration announced this week the imposition of new sanctions on Iran. Coming just weeks after the administration announced another tranche of penalties, these sanctions target 20 entities based in both Iran and Iraq which the administration says served as front companies to facilitate funding for the Quds Force branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In addition to those financial penalties, the State Department renewed four “restrictions” in a move it described as extending “restrictions on the Iranian regime’s nuclear program for an additional 60 days.” The State Department is contending that this decision is another step to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, but there is a debate about the framing of this step.

What the administration describes as four “restrictions” are actually waivers to existing sanctions that would allow Russian, Chinese, and European entities to work with Iranians at nuclear facilities in Iran. Supporting Iran’s nuclear program is usually a sanctionable offense; but as part of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the United States had agreed to relax these sanctions to allow the international community to directly assist Iran in civilian nuclear energy projects. The reframing by the administration did not fool Republicans in Washington, though. In fact, Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) criticized the administration’s decision.

Sanctions are not the only Iran policy being debated, however. According to recent reporting (see here and here), there is a debate within the Trump Administration about the United States’ military policy toward Iran and Iran-backed militias in Iraq. In short, some in the Trump Administration want to use the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic to increase military action against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, namely Kataeb Hezbollah. Officials at the Pentagon, however, are worried about the implications of increased military action in Iraq. First, Kataeb Hezbollah has shown its willingness and ability to launch attacks against US forces there and there is ample reason to believe it would only expand those attacks if it feels endangered. Furthermore, an uptick in military operations would likely irk Baghdad and cause even further tension in US-Iraqi relations. The Trump Administration has already angered its hosts in Baghdad by killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani there and, just this week, the administration upped pressure on Iraq by reducing a sanctions waiver that allows it to import much needed energy supplies from Iran.

Even as COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm the US healthcare system, pundits and politicos in Washington grappled with the appropriate US response toward a struggling Iran. The Trump Administration appears torn right now between those who advocate for humanitarian sanctions relief to help Tehran contain a once-in-a-generation pandemic while others are content with the status quo, if not urging an outright escalation in US pressure.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Secure US Bases Act. This week, Republican Reps. Michael Waltz and Matt Gaetz, both of Florida, introduced H.R. 6392 that is the House’s version of a bill introduced by Senator Rick Scott (R-Florida) in March. After a Saudi military student opened fire on his colleagues on a base in Florida, Republicans of that state have pushed for an overhaul of the vetting processes that foreign military students undergo before entering the United States.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers Write to Trump Administration about COVID-19 Responses, Saudi Oil Output. As the Trump Administration struggles with how to address the pandemic, lawmakers on Capitol Hill wrote top administration officials this week to push the White House to implement more responsible policies amid the global struggle against the coronavirus. First, Reps. Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Adam Smith (D-Washington) wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, Mark Green, regarding the administration’s policies toward Yemen. Engel, Smith, and five of their colleagues wrote to Pompeo and Green just one day before the administration decided to suspend millions of dollars in aid to Yemen.

The administration decided on March 27 to immediately cut tens of millions of dollars in funding to areas under the control of Yemen’s Houthi rebels. While the Houthis have not been fair in distributing critical aid, the lawmakers argued that now is simply not the time to cut support. Yemen does not have the health care infrastructure to deal with a massive spread of COVID-19 and its population is already faced with poor living conditions and fragile immune systems that would spell disaster likely for millions of people. For that reason, these House Democrats called on the administration to reconsider its decision. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) also released a joint statement on Yemen, calling for renewed humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged country.

In addition, eight senators wrote a separate letter to Secretary Pompeo in an attempt to persuade the administration “to take every reasonable step to provide medicine, medical equipment, and other necessary assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) to prevent a humanitarian disaster.” In their letter, senators outlined the dire health and economic conditions in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and warned that US support is necessary for containing the spread of COVID-19 throughout the occupied territories. The United States has cut millions of dollars in aid to Palestinians in the occupied territories since 2018.

Though not directly tied to the global pandemic response, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), wrote a letter to the Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, Keith Krach, regarding Saudi Arabia’s ongoing oil price war with Russia which is exacerbating economic uncertainty at a time of global pandemic. McCaul called on the State Department—even though the Trump Administration just tapped a top Energy Department advisor to work directly on this matter—to continue engaging with Riyadh to assure that energy markets stabilize. Despite these efforts, Saudi Arabia looks poised to achieve its goal of boosting output.

Senators Murphy, Coons Call for Solution to Libyan Crisis as Coronavirus Cases Increase. Libya has been engulfed in civil war since 2014, but despite the international community’s failure to find a solution to the conflict, Senators Chris Murphy and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) are speaking out about the need to end the fighting as Libya is increasingly exposed to the coronavirus. Though Libya has reported only ten confirmed cases (as of April 1), years of war have crushed the economy and devastated the country’s health care sector, leaving Libyans highly susceptible to the diffusion of infectious disease. Like in the cases of Syria and Yemen, health experts fear that the spread of COVID-19 among war torn countries would prove disastrous. To that effect, the senators are calling on all sides to find a solution to the conflict expeditiously.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senator Romney Discusses Israel and President Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. This week, Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) participated in an online discussion with students from Harvard University about his support for Israel and he shared thoughts about the Trump Administration’s plan for resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Romney described Israel as one of the only “free” and “democratic” states in the Middle East and a model for other states in the region, but he did not mention the millions of Palestinians who live under Israeli rule without say in their governance. Romney criticized the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, arguing that it is not the right tactic to use to address concerns about Israeli policies. The senator said he was encouraged by the two-state proposal the Trump team had crafted despite conceding that the Arab states and the Palestinians had rejected the plan. Senator Romney said the Trump plan retains a commitment to creating two independent states, thereby serving as an important prompt for future negotiations. However, he then repeated a familiar argument that Israel has no negotiating partner on the Palestinian side.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Holds Phone Calls with Israel’s Netanyahu, Turkey’s Erdoğan. President Donald Trump called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is nearing an agreement to form a new coalition government in Israel, to congratulate him on his soon-to-be official new term as premier. In addition, the two spoke about working together to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, President Trump held a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The two also spoke about the coronavirus outbreak and how it necessitates ceasefire agreements in two arenas in which Ankara is active militarily, Syria and Libya.

2) Department of State

State Department Recommends Cutting $300 Million from US Aid to Egypt. This week the news outlet Foreign Policy detailed that, early in March, officials from the State Department’s Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs suggested to Secretary Pompeo that the United States could consider cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt. The move would be in response to the recent death of Mustafa Kassem, a dual US-Egyptian citizen who was unjustly detained in an Egyptian prison for six years and died in January. Since then, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) have demanded that the administration implement applicable laws and sanctions on the Egyptian regime for, among other things, the gross abuse of human rights. Because Pompeo has refused to pressure Cairo—at least publicly—and has yet to apply sanctions that already exist under US law, many are skeptical that the secretary will stand up to the regime of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in defense human rights.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here