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Human Rights Watch urges Washington to lift sanctions on Iran

Tehran Times – The Human Rights Watch has urged the United States’ government to ease sanctions on Iran in the coronavirus crisis. “Broad U.S.-imposed economic sanctions are negatively affecting the Iranian government’s ability to adequately respond to the mounting health consequences of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic,” says a report published on website of the Human Rights Watch on Monday.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who abrogated the UN-endorsed 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) in May 2018, has slapped the harshest ever sanctions in history against Iran in line with his “maximum pressure” policy toward Tehran. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said such illegal sanctions are even exceeding “what would be permissible on the battlefield”. The HRW says Washington “should take immediate action to ease U.S. sanctions and expand licensing of sanctions-exempt items to ensure Iran’s access to essential humanitarian resources during the pandemic.”

Following is an excerpt of the report:

On March 19, the spokesperson for Iran’s Health Ministry tweeted that every hour almost 50 people contract the virus and every 10 minutes one person dies because of COVID-19 across the country. As the burden on the country’s debilitated health care system has dramatically increased, the broad U.S. economic sanctions resulting in severe international banking restrictions have drastically constrained the ability of the country to finance humanitarian imports, including medicines and medical equipment.

After the Trump administration announced its intention to leave the negotiated nuclear agreement in 2018, Iran’s currency, the rial, depreciated significantly. The restrictions on financing, combined with the sharp depreciation of the rial, have resulted in severely limiting Iranian companies and hospitals from purchasing essential medicines and medical equipment from outside Iran that residents depend upon for critical medical care. Moreover, renewed U.S. sanctions have directly impacted families’ purchasing power, contributing to inflation rates of around 30 percent in the past year.

A doctor with close knowledge of the government’s response to the outbreak told Human Rights Watch that obtaining necessary medical equipment has become more difficult under sanctions.

While the U.S. government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, Human Rights Watch research in October 2019 found that in practice, these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of U.S. and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods.

On January 30, the U.S. Department of Treasury and the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs announced the transfer of medicine through a newly established humanitarian channel as a “trial run.” The U.S. Treasury had announced the establishment of the channel on October 25 after its designation of Iran’s central bank under its counterterrorism authority on September 20, a move that had seriously threatened the flow of exempted humanitarian trade to Iran.

On March 6, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued guidance that transactions involving Iran’s foreign exchange assets held abroad, when used to buy humanitarian items, would not face U.S. sanctions. However, because waivers are no longer available for purchasing Iranian oil and sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank, Iran’s access to currency to purchase needed medical supplies on the international market has become further restricted.

OFAC has issued general licenses that permit the export of “certain food items, medicines, and basic medical supplies to Iran” without requiring further specific authorization. These provisions also authorize financial transactions to support Iranian imports of these categories of goods from the United States or from a third country. General licenses, however, are capped at $500,000.

But the definition of drugs under U.S. export regulations – which includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines and medical devices – excludes certain vaccines, biological and chemical products, and medical devices – including medical supplies, instruments, equipment, equipped ambulances, institutional washing machines for sterilization, and vehicles carrying medical testing equipment. This means that equipment crucial to fighting the virus, including ventilators, CT scanners, decontamination equipment, and full-mask respirators, require a special license.

The Washington Post reported that the rate of special licenses OFAC issued for the export of specific medicine and medical devices to Iran has significantly declined under the Trump administration, from more than 50 percent of requests during the first quarter of 2016 to 10 percent during the first quarter of 2019. If more licenses are not granted, or the rules are not changed to include this equipment under the general license, Iranians may not be able to obtain the medical equipment and drugs they need to help combat COVID-19 in a timely manner, Human Rights Watch said.

In a letter dated March 26, 11 U.S. senators called on the Trump administration to release a “clear general license authorizing specific medical goods and equipment to facilitate international relief efforts” and to issue a “90-day waiver of sectoral sanctions that impede a rapid humanitarian response” among other efforts. In a bicameral letter dated March 31, 34 members of Congress called for a substantial suspension of sanctions on Iran in a “humanitarian gesture.”

Relief International, a nongovernmental organization that operates with an OFAC license in Iran, said that international aid – and therefore an adequate response during the first weeks of the crisis – was hampered by a need to clarify the legal issues related to sanctions to ensure that medical supplies and medicines can be brought into Iran.

On March 24, Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement that for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in living in countries under economic sanctions that are battling against the outbreak of COVID-19, “Sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended. In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.”

Under international law, a country or coalition of states enforcing economic sanctions should consider the impact on the human rights of the affected population, especially regarding their access to goods essential to life, including medicines and food. “The U.S. government should ensure that financial sanctions imposed on Iran are clearly and publicly interpreted to permit the shipment of anything the Iranian people need to protect themselves from the coronavirus,” Roth said.

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