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While The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Devastating Iran, The U.S. Has Added More Sanctions


Before the U.S. led the world in reported cases of coronavirus, the pandemic was already sweeping through Iran. More than 2,700 people have died there, and the health care system has been devastated. But that hasn't stopped the Trump administration from hitting the country with tougher sanctions. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: To be sure, between exceeding limits on its nuclear program and its support of proxy groups in the region, Iran has a lot to answer for. To try and change that behavior, the Trump administration has been ratcheting up its maximum pressure campaign, mostly with the use of sanctions. This month, as cases of the coronavirus skyrocketed in Iran, the administration added more sanctions. Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy, says the optics are all wrong.

DENNIS ROSS: They don't have to go ahead and relax sanctions, but they don't have to add to them at this point because it undercuts their own message. It makes it harder to make it appear as if the Iranians are the ones who are responsible for a lot of their own problems right now.

NORTHAM: Mara Karlin, a former Pentagon official who now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says the U.S. sanctions have crippled Iran's economy. Still, Karlin says, it's likely the Trump administration will continue to add more.

MARA KARLIN: I think there are absolutely some in the U.S. administration right now who see Iran's weakness that has been exacerbated by the virus as an opportunity to further enhance the maximum pressure campaign and disembowel the Iranian regime as much as possible.

NORTHAM: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the regime is still spending money on its military and that the Trump administration has offered to help Iran during the coronavirus outbreak. Tehran turned down the offer. Pompeo also defends the administration's use of sanctions, saying they work and that there are some exemptions.


MIKE POMPEO: There is no sanction on medicines going to Iran. There's no sanctions on humanitarian assistance going into the country. They've got a terrible problem there, and we want that humanitarian medical health care assistance to get to the people of Iran.

NORTHAM: But Karlin says many countries and companies are wary of helping Iran out of fear that they could also face sanctions and be cut off from the U.S. financial system.

KARLIN: You could see a lot of European countries who may be wanting to assist Iran during this humanitarian crisis but who are simultaneously fearful of exacerbating their relationship with the Trump administration.

NORTHAM: Dennis Ross, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says while the coronavirus is creating pressure on the Iranian regime, it's unlikely adding more sanctions will make them capitulate and return to the negotiating table.

ROSS: Pressure does work - even though they will say it doesn't - pressure does work to affect their behavior. On the other hand, they won't act in a circumstance where they look like they're weak.

NORTHAM: In the meantime, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for rolling back sanctions around the world to help battle the coronavirus.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.