Intel: Trump administration eases humanitarian trade restrictions on Iran amid coronavirus fears

al-monitor An Iranian woman wears a protective mask to prevent contracting coronavirus, as she is seen at a drug store in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 25, 2020.  Photo by WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Nazanin Tabatabaee via REUTERS.

Feb 27, 2020

The Donald Trump administration slightly eased sanctions on Iran today to allow for trade in medical supplies and food as Tehran struggles to respond to the coronavirus outbreak throughout the country. The Treasury Department issued a general license exemption for trade in humanitarian goods through Iran’s central bank. At the same time, the United States and Switzerland finalized a humanitarian trade agreement, which provides assurances for the Swiss to export humanitarian goods to Iran without fear of incurring US sanctions penalties.

“The Swiss Humanitarian Trade Agreement (SHTA) will help ensure that humanitarian goods continue to reach the Iranian people without diversion by the regime,” said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. “We thank our Swiss counterparts for their dedicated efforts in establishing SHTA and we look forward to our continued collaboration.”

Why it matters: The new humanitarian sanctions exemption could help Iran deal with the rapid coronavirus outbreak even as Tehran continues to deny the scale of the problem, arresting and warning dozens of citizens for discussing the pandemic online.

“I think there’s some political liability to having designated the Central Bank of Iran and to have [the Trump administration] perceived as cutting off humanitarian trade with Iran,” said Tyler Cullis, a counsel specializing in sanctions law at Ferrari & Associates. “I would assume that was going to accelerate with the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran and they could resolve an issue that they themselves created by issuing a license.”

Congress first sanctioned Iran’s central bank in 2011. But the Trump administration stepped up those restrictions last year by adding additional counterterrorism designations on the central bank, effectively cutting off humanitarian exemptions.

The National American Iranian Council (NIAC), which supports reconciliation with Tehran, also welcomed the exemption as “an important reversal” while calling for “additional action.”

“The public health sector in Iran has been under severe stress for months, in large part due to crushing economic sanctions that have limited humanitarian trade in medical devices and medicine manufactured in the West,” said Ryan Costello, NIAC’s policy director. “Amid the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran, which has been exacerbated both by the Iranian government’s bungled response and sanctions, it is vital that urgent steps are taken to respond to the shared threat.”

What’s next: It remains to be seen whether Iran will be able to quell the coronavirus outbreak. Tehran officially maintains that there have been 26 coronavirus deaths and 254 cases, including Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harichi and three other Cabinet members. But Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a conservative lawmaker from Qom, cited a higher figure earlier this week.

Know more: Al-Monitor will keep you on top of the latest on the coronavirus outbreak in Iran and Tehran’s response. Iran is inching closer to a shutdown as it struggles to contain the virus, but President Hassan Rouhani has resisted calls to quarantine affected cities and is instead accusing Tehran’s foreign adversaries of spreading “public panic.”

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