Trump’s new Iran sanctions raise alarm over humanitarian access

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The Trump administration on Thursday announced sweeping new sanctions on Iran’s financial sector, targeting at least 18 banks in a move that critics say will hamper humanitarian assistance during the pandemic.

The fresh round of sanctions is part of the administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” that aims to push the Islamic republic toward negotiations over its nuclear program and prevent the country from financing military actions throughout the Middle East.

“Today’s action to identify the financial sector and sanction eighteen major Iranian banks reflects our commitment to stop illicit access to U.S. dollars,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

“Our sanctions programs will continue until Iran stops its support of terrorist activities and ends its nuclear programs. Today’s actions will continue to allow for humanitarian transactions to support the Iranian people.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday said the sanctions are directed at “the regime and its corrupt officials.”

He accused Iranian leaders of depriving funds for the Health Ministry needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and instead diverting it to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which the U.S. designated a terrorist organization in 2019. 

“In 2018 and 2019, Khamenei raided $4 billion from the Iranian National Development Fund for military expenses,” Pompeo said in a statement. “And while the Health Ministry was pleading for resources to protect the Iranian people from the outbreak, Khamenei instead increased funding for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, by a third, and doubled the funding for the regime’s Basij forces that terrorize the Iranian people every single day.”

Despite assurances from the Trump administration that processes are in place to ensure delivery of needed humanitarian assistance to the people of Iran, European officials and experts have expressed alarm at the wide-ranging sanctions. 

The Washington Post reported Thursday that European officials were expressing alarm at the new sanctions, saying they would effectively freeze Tehran’s access to any foreign assets and rob it of foreign currency to pay for humanitarian imports.

The Trump administration in October 2019 worked to set up a humanitarian channel through Switzerland to deliver goods and services to Iran; the first transfer of cancer drugs and transplant medication occurred in January, and the terms of the channel were finalized in February.

But the efficacy of the channel is under scrutiny. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of Bourse and Bazaar, a news and analysis source on Iran, wrote on Twitter that pharmaceutical exports to Iran through the Swiss had declined sharply since January.

“Pharma exports to Iran were already lower after Trump reimposed sanctions in Nov 2018 *and* have yet to recover after COVID-19 halted normal trade flows. This data for Swiss exports makes the risks clear,” he wrote.

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said the sanctions were “sadism masquerading as foreign policy.”

“They won’t bring the Iranian government to its knees but will hurt ordinary people, encourage more smuggling and in the long run, undermine dollar-based sanctions,” she wrote on Twitter.

Others said the move was more symbolic than impactful, viewed as election campaign rhetoric rather than meaningful policy action.

“These sanctions will neither crush Iran’s political will nor bring it back to negotiations on US terms. These appear to be messaging sanctions, with the US domestic audience the principal target,” said Daniel Fried, former coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department and the Weiser Family Distinguished Fellow with the Atlantic Council. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif condemned the new sanctions in a post on Twitter, even though the social media platform is blocked in his country.

“Amid Covid19 pandemic, U.S. regime wants to blow up our remaining channels to pay for food & medicine. Iranians WILL survive this latest of cruelties. But conspiring to starve a population is a crime against humanity. Culprits & enablers—who block our money—WILL face justice,” he tweeted.

Supporters of the Trump administration’s efforts say the latest round of penalties are in line with its maximum pressure push.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, praised the new sanctions and downplayed concerns over access to humanitarian assistance.

“Fears of this impacting existing general licenses or the existing Swiss humanitarian channel are overblown. There is no better example in US history where Washington has used non-kinetic tools of punishment, and so often, with such attention paid to keeping channels open for humanitarian trade,” he said.

“As a reminder, these sanctions could go away, just like the others, if Tehran decided to act like a normal nation and put national interest and the welfare of its own people over the revolutionary priorities of the regime.”

The new sanctions are likely to further isolate the U.S. from the international community’s engagement with Iran. Trump in 2018 withdrew the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Obama-era nuclear deal signed between Iran and the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany.

All five world powers and Iran have criticized Trump for leaving the deal and have further rejected the move by the administration in September to unilaterally impose snapback sanctions on Iran.

Updated at 4:40 p.m.

Tags Iran Mike Pompeo nuclear deal Nuclear weapons sanctions Steven Mnuchin Tehran
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