Intel: Joe Biden uses coronavirus crisis to push for Iran sanctions relief

al-monitor Democratic US presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the 11th debate of Democratic candidates of the 2020 US presidential campaign, held in CNN's Washington studios without an audience because of the global coronavirus pandemic, in Washington, March 15, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.

Apr 2, 2020

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the overwhelming favorite to become the Democratic presidential nominee, came out in favor of humanitarian sanctions relief for Iran to help the embattled country cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

“There are already humanitarian exceptions in place for sanctions, but in practice, most governments and organizations are too concerned about running afoul of US sanctions to offer assistance,” Biden said in a statement. “As a result, our sanctions are limiting Iran’s access to medical supplies and needed equipment. The [Donald Trump] administration should take immediate steps to address this problem and streamline channels for banking and public health assistance from other countries in response to the health emergency in Iran.”

Why it matters: Biden’s statement comes after his one remaining primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called for even broader Iran sanctions relief amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Sanders joined Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and 31 other Democratic lawmakers in a letter to the Trump administration this week urging the president to undo the crippling sanctions he has implemented since withdrawing from the nuclear deal.

Sanders and his colleagues urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to relieve sanctions on “major sectors of the Iranian economy, including those impacting civilian industries, Iran’s banking sector and exports of oil,” adding that the relief “should last for at least as long as health experts believe the crisis will continue.”

For now, Biden is only calling for humanitarian exemptions to Trump’s current sanctions regime such as “broad license to pharmaceutical and medical device companies” and “creating a dedicated channel for international banks, transportation companies, insurers and other service firms to help Iranians access life-saving medical treatment.” He also called for new sanctions guidelines and letters for international aid organizations to reassure them that they will not run afoul of US sanctions for supplying humanitarian relief to Iran. 

“Looking more closely at Biden’s statement, some of the things he mentioned, such as licenses, are already in place,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “A general license is how the Treasury Department helped work with the Swiss to approve a humanitarian channel that touches even the Central Bank of Iran.”

What’s next: Iran has rejected the Trump administration’s offer to provide direct assistance to fight the coronavirus, instead calling for sanctions relief. But Biden argued that the offer “is insufficient if not backed by concrete steps to ensure the United States is not exacerbating this growing humanitarian crisis.” In the meantime, the pandemic continues to be devastating for both the United States and Iran, which have the first- and seventh-most cases in the world, respectively.

Know more: Sanctions aside, the United States has also exchanged fire with Iran-backed proxies in Iraq in recent months following the assassination of Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Bryant Harris details how Soleimani’s replacement, Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, recently traveled to Baghdad, shortly before Trump issued a stern warning to Iran.