Coronavirus: Europe at the bedside of Iran, despite American sanctions

Faced with the urgency of the health crisis in Iran, the European Union has stepped up to the plate. On Monday, Josep Borrell, the EU's chief diplomat, called on the international community to send humanitarian aid to the Islamic Republic, and to overcome fears linked to the American sanctions hitting the country. "We must reaffirm that humanitarian exchanges (…), food, medicines and medical equipment (…) are not under American sanctions", stressed the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs during a videoconference. "This must be reaffirmed, because many people think that if they participate in this type of humanitarian exchange, they could be targeted by the sanctions," he added.

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"We must ensure that legitimate assistance and humanitarian aid can go to Iran, regardless of the sanctions, which may exist elsewhere", precise to Point Peter Stano, spokesperson for Josep Borrell. "There are no US sanctions on humanitarian exchanges, this is a common misconception," he insists. "We will therefore provide assistance of more than 20 million euros which will make it possible to meet the needs of the health sector, in order to ensure that the most vulnerable people are well taken care of. The spokesman said the aid will be distributed through its regular partners, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Pasteur Institute in Tehran.

Washington blows hot and cold

In addition to the € 20 million aid announced by the EU, France, Germany and the United Kingdom have pledged to provide Iran with additional € 5 million aid through the 'World Health Organization and other UN agencies, says a diplomatic source. "By taking measures to help Iran on a humanitarian level, and by supporting Iran's request for a loan from the International Monetary Fund ($ 5 billion, note), the European Union is taking a position contrary to that of the Trump administration, "said Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR). “The question now is whether political discourse will into facts on the ground. "

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Since the start of the coronavirus crisis in Iran, which officially left 2,077 dead and contaminated 27,017 people (but whose toll could be five times higher according to the WHO, editor's note) hot and cold vis-à-vis Tehran. However, on several occasions, Washington has publicly announced that it is ready to help the Iranians, in particular through the World Health Organization, while Iran has previously called for the lifting of American sanctions. "The only thing they have to do is ask for it," said Donald Trump on February 29. However, five days later, the American emissary for Iran, Brian Hook, accused the Iranian regime of having "lied to its own people" on the extent of the crisis (the Iranian authorities did not reveal the first case of coronavirus only on February 19 when the virus seems to have appeared at the end of January, note). And on March 17, Washington imposed new round of sanctions against the Iranian petrochemical sector.

Fear of banks

The "outstretched hand" of the United States was coldly rejected by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "We are wary of the intentions of the Americans and do not count on these aids," Iranian number one said on Sunday. “The American leaders are at the same time liars, manipulative, impudent, and greedy. They are charlatans, "he accused. "The Iranians do not want American aid anyway," analyzes Julien Barnes-Dacey. "As for the Americans, they are not ready to drop an inch of ground to Iran. For them, the coronavirus is a political opportunity aimed at increasing the vulnerability of the Iranian regime by showing its inability to manage the crisis inside the country, ”added the researcher. "On the contrary, Europe wishes to respond to the humanitarian emergency in Iran, but its position is extremely limited by that of the United States. "

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Officially, the US sanctions against Iran do not target the humanitarian or medical sectors. But these are in reality impacted by the refusal of international banks to ensure transactions, even legal ones, with Iran. "If these drugs and medical equipment are available, they are not accessible to the Iranians because of the political environment created by the United States, which intimidates many pharmaceutical companies to engage in the fight against the coronavirus in Iran. Explains to Point Dr. Kamiar Alaei, president of the Institute for International Health and Education in Albany, in the United States. Specialist in the Iranian health system, this doctor claims, for example, to have been refused by two pharmaceutical companies, the British Biosearchtech and the Swiss Roche, to buy test kits and medicines for Iran, while his partner organization had obtained a license from Ofac, the financial control body of the American secretariat to the Treasury.

"Banks and transport companies do not want to have anything to do with Iran, no matter what the goods are," said Gérard Araud, former French ambassador to the United States, on Twitter. "We need a specific channel stamped by the United States with regard to humanitarian assistance. The Europeans argued it for two years. Without success. By using a UN agency this time as a channel for distributing its humanitarian aid, the EU could manage to circumvent any risk linked to US sanctions.

"The regime masks its incompetence"

An almost similar situation already opposes the Old Continent to its American ally on the issue of the Iranian nuclear agreement (JCPOA). In May 2018, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, before decreeing "the severest sanctions ever imposed on a country" against Iran. Since then, France, the United Kingdom and Germany, which remain signatories to the agreement, have tried to offer financial compensation to the Islamic Republic in order to keep it in the JCPOA. In vain, the extraterritoriality of the American sanctions and the risk of record fines from the Treasury secretariat that ensued were right for their efforts. Since July 2019, Iran has in turn distanced itself from the nuclear agreement, gradually resuming its illicit activities.

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But beyond the American sanctions, international humanitarian aid can come up against other obstacles, this time from Iran. Arriving in Iran on Sunday, the French NGO Médecins sans frontières had the unpleasant experience of having its mission canceled by the Ministry of Health, under pressure from the conservatives in power. "These people do not prioritize the health of their population," enraged a doctor in Iran who requested anonymity. “The regime masks its incompetence by putting it on the backs of the Americans. "