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Iran Sanctions Aggravate Coronavirus Crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn our attention back to the other major story we're following - the coronavirus. We're focusing on Iran now, where at least 145 people have died and nearly 6,000 other cases have been confirmed. But getting help to Iran is hard. In part, that's because of U.S. sanctions, which are meant to force Iran back to the negotiating table. But U.S. policy might be aggravating Iran's health emergency. NPR's Jackie Northam has this report.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The sheer number of infections sweeping through Iran is worrying international health experts. U.S. sanctions have strangled the country's economy and hurt its health care system.

ELIZABETH ROSENBERG: The pressure of economic sanctions does show up in the difficulty that, say, Iran has in getting access to medicine and medical devices.

NORTHAM: Elizabeth Rosenberg is a former senior Treasury official now at the Center for a New American Security. She says international banks and companies worry they'll be blacklisted by the Trump administration if they do business with Iran. In theory, the U.S. sanctions do allow for items, such as food and medical supplies, to be sold to Iran. But it hasn't worked out that way, according to Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran specialist at the RAND Corporation.

ARIANE TABATABAI: Because of a number of issues, including the inability of Iran having access to banks, companies not being able to process payments and so on, so forth, Iran had not been able to actually gets access to a lot of humanitarian goods.

NORTHAM: The severity of the crisis has not calm the political rhetoric. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the country was in urgent need of face masks, ventilators and surgical gowns and then blamed the U.S. for what he called economic terrorism, saying it was endangering Iranian patients. But Behnam Ben Taleblu with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies says Iran has to share the blame for the coronavirus outbreak battering the country. He says there's endemic corruption and bureaucracy, and the Iranian government is withholding information from the public.

BEHNAM BEN TALEBLU: You had no better symbol of the way Iran has managed this crisis when you have the deputy health minister give an interview, coughing and sweating before a reporter who he probably infected with this or, you know, multiple members of the Iranian cabinet who've been in meetings with these other infected members of the Iranian cabinet.

NORTHAM: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fired back at Iran, suggesting Tehran was hiding the number of Iranians who have contracted coronavirus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: The United States is deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country. All nations, including Iran, should tell the truth about the coronavirus and cooperate with international aid organizations.

NORTHAM: Pompeo and President Trump have said the U.S. is willing to help Iran if it asks for assistance. The offer was turned down. Last week, the U.S. Treasury announced it was lifting some terrorism-related sanctions on Iran Central Bank, effectively clearing a path for more international firms to sell medical supplies to Iran. Elizabeth Rosenberg says the U.S. could do more.

ROSENBERG: It could do other creative things to create legal pathways to send medicine and medical devices to Iran. We haven't seen that yet, but it's possible that we could if the U.S. administration is motivated to do so.

NORTHAM: Meanwhile, help is starting to reach Iran but not from the U.S. Earlier this week, a team from the World Health Organization brought in medical supplies, protective equipment and laboratory kits to test 100,000 people. France, Germany and the U.K. announced they would channel more than $5 million worth of supplies through the WHO. And Russia said it's committed to supplying Iranian pharmacies with medicines during the coronavirus outbreak.

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