Intel: Iran sanctions debate highlights fissure between Democratic hawks, progressives

al-monitor A woman wearing a protective face mask and gloves walks past the Imamzadeh Saleh shrine amid fear of the coronavirus, in Tehran, Iran, April 2, 2020.  Photo by WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Ali Khara via REUTERS.

Apr 3, 2020

The debate over how to respond to President Donald Trump’s sanctions regime against Iran in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is creating a fissure between the hawkish and the left wings of the Democratic Party.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs panel, Bob Menendez, D-N.J., came out in favor today of broadly maintaining the current US Iran sanctions regime while urging the Trump administration to do more to facilitate humanitarian sanctions exemptions in the fight against COVID-19.

“Simply lifting sanctions that have been imposed for ongoing malign behavior will not provide immediate or meaningful relief for the Iranian people,” Menendez said in a statement. “Congress has made clear through legislation that our sanctions regime should never hinder humanitarian and medical relief,” he added.

Why it matters: Their announcement today mirrors the position former Vice President Joe Biden — Trump’s likely Democratic opponent in November — came out in favor of on April 2. It also follows a push from Biden’s primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and a group of progressive lawmakers to lift broader financial sanctions on Iran as it struggles to cope with the pandemic.

Sanders, Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., led 31 other Democratic lawmakers in a letter to the Trump administration earlier this week urging relief for “major sectors of the Iranian economy,” which the president has aggressively sanctioned since withdrawing from the nuclear deal in 2018. The letter said that should include sanctions “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.”

What’s next: The Treasury Department did issue a general license exemption for humanitarian trade with Iran’s Central Bank in February. But Engel, Menendez and Biden argue that the Trump administration needs to do more to publicly reassure the banking sector — which is hesitant to conduct any Iran-related transactions — that medical and agricultural trade with Tehran will not run afoul of US sanctions. Engel and Menendez also want the Treasury Department to “temporarily” raise the $500,000 annual cap on humanitarian transactions for Iran — or exempt coronavirus-related payments entirely.

Know more: Congressional Correspondent Bryant Harris also took a look at Biden’s specific proposals for Iran humanitarian relief on April 2. It’s not just about sanctions relief either. Be sure to read his story on how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is lining up Democrats to help Trump undo one of the last vestiges of the unraveling nuclear deal.

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