This coronavirus crisis is the time to ease sanctions on Iran

The New York Times – Iran is in terrible shape. It is among the countries worst hit by the coronavirus — more than 27,000 documented cases to date. Sanctions have choked its economy. Tensions with Washington remain high and the government is incompetent.

Does that mean the United States should tighten sanctions further in the hope that the “maximum pressure” strategy will compel Tehran to toe Washington’s line? Or should it loosen sanctions to help Iranians and show them that America’s argument is not with the people?

The choice seems obvious. Demonstrating compassion in times of crisis is good foreign policy, and in this case it may actually help achieve the goals the Trump administration is pursuing.

Yet last week the Trump administration tightened its sanctions, blacklisting several companies around the world for “significant transactions” in petrochemical products with Iran. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin issued a statement stressing that the United States would continue to target those who support the Iranian regime, even as it “remains committed to facilitating humanitarian trade and assistance in support of the Iranian people.” He has insisted all along that sanctions do not prohibit humanitarian contributions.

Such arguments are specious in these terrible times. Iran has been overwhelmed by confirmed cases and fatalities, and they’re climbing by the day — and that’s according to the Iranian government’s dubious numbers. The reality may be far worse. Iran has appealed to the International Monetary Fund for $5 billion in emergency funding and a long list of essential equipment ranging from gloves and masks to portable respirators. It should get all this immediately.

No, the United States and its sanctions are not responsible for the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Iran, as Iranian hard-liners have claimed, though the economic hardships from the sanctions could not have helped. Last year, before the current crisis, Human Rights Watch wrote in a report that sanctions had “drastically constrained the ability of the country to finance humanitarian imports, including medicines.” But the Iranian government carries primary responsibility for the plague by initially denying the outbreak and then reacting far too slowly.The Trump administration says it has offered to help the “Iranian people” and to facilitate the delivery of medical supplies to Iran. But the offer is said to carry many conditions, and importers say they still have a major problem finding banks willing to maneuver through the daunting compliance processes to finance the trade.

In any case, piling on more sanctions while Iran bleeds is morally wrong and looks terrible.

Setting aside arguments over whether scuttling the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and resuming sanctions made sense to begin with — this editorial board argued that it did not — the crisis should be treated by President Trump as a diplomatic opportunity.

On the most elemental level of humanitarian compassion, the United States should be at the forefront of offering what help it can. That may not mean sending medical supplies like respirators, which are in short supply everywhere, but at the least it should mean clearing the way for the I.M.F. loan.

The United States could also offer to send experts to help with technical assistance, a measure that would have the added benefit of providing American medical officials with experience on the coronavirus epidemic at its most devastating. The Trump administration should also loosen or lift sanctions for a limited time and offer technical assistance to Tehran.

There should not be a quid pro quo, which Mr. Trump is so fond of demanding — humanitarian aid should be without strings — but American generosity might be the best way of persuading Iran to release American and other foreign detainees.

Ideally, that could lead to a lowering of tensions, a reduction of attacks on American targets in Iraq by Iranian allies, and even, down the line, serious discussions on freezing Iran’s nuclear escalation.

That’s a lot of maybes, given a regime that has shown no inclination to back down before the United States. But if Iran refused American help or continued in its ways despite it, the sanctions would go back into place and the Islamist leaders would be hard put to convince their people that the United States was blocking humanitarian aid.

More important, there’s no evidence that the “maximum pressure” strategy the administration has followed will achieve any of these goals. On the contrary, for the past year the Iranian government has retaliated with repeated nuclear and regional provocations in the evident conviction that this is more likely than restraint to get results.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Robert Malley and Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group argued that in the current crisis, desperate hard-liners in Tehran might take even more dangerous risks.

That was the warning from Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of the military’s Central Command, who told Congress earlier this month that the outbreak of the virus “probably makes them, in terms of decision-making, more dangerous rather than less dangerous.”

Suspending sanctions, clearing the I.M.F. loan and offering help, real help, may not make the Iranian government less dangerous. But it’s what America should be doing as a great nation, and unlike the alternative, it does hold out the possibility of making Iran less dangerous.