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HRW Calls for US Sanctions Relief to Help Iran’s COVID-19 Response

HRW Calls for US Sanctions Relief to Help Iran’s COVID-19 ResponseHRW Calls for US Sanctions Relief to Help Iran’s COVID-19 Response

The Human Rights Watch on Monday called on the United States to ease its sanctions on the Iranian economy to facilitate the country’s adequate response to the mounting health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). 
“The US should take immediate action to ease US sanctions and expand licensing of sanctions-exempt items to ensure Iran’s access to essential humanitarian resources during the pandemic,” the US-based organization said in a report published on its website. 
US President Donald Trump imposed sweeping sanctions on Tehran in 2018 after withdrawing unilaterally from the 2015 nuclear deal. The tight restrictions have impeded efforts to fight the coronavirus that had infected over 60,000 people and killed more than 3,700 in Iran by April 6. 
The HRW report noted that US restrictions on financing, combined with the sharp depreciation of the Iranian currency rial, have severely limited Iranian companies and hospitals from importing essential medicines and medical equipment that residents depend on for critical medical care. 
Kenneth Roth, the organization’s global head, said, “It is wrong and callous for the Trump administration to compound Iranians’ misery by depriving them of access to the critical medical resources they urgently need.”


 

Non-Functioning Exemptions 

While the US 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 US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods. 
On March 6, US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued guidance that transactions involving Iran’s foreign exchange assets held abroad, when used to buy humanitarian items, would not face US sanctions. However, because of waivers preventing the purchase of oil and sanctions against the Iranian central bank, Iran’s access to foreign 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. 
However, the licenses are capped at $500,000, not to mention that the definition of drugs under US export regulations excludes certain vaccines, biological and chemical products, and medical devices. This means that equipment crucial to fighting the virus, including ventilators, CT scanners, decontamination equipment, and full-mask respirators, require a special license.
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.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement on March 24, that for global public health reasons, “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 US 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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