As Iran struggles to battle the spread of COVID-19, the United States on Thursday heaped more economic pressure on the country by slapping a fresh round of sanctions on more than a dozen Iranian individuals and five companies.
COVID-19 has killed at least 2,234 people in Iran and the number of confirmed cases in the country is approaching 30,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The US Treasury sanctions were announced one day after the family of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing more than a decade ago, said they believed he had died while in custody Iran, citing information from US officials.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday that Levinson had left Iran “years ago” for an unspecified destination.
“Iran employs a web of front companies to fund terrorist groups across the region, siphoning resources away from the Iranian people and prioritizing terrorist proxies over the basic needs of its people,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement posted to the Treasury website on Thursday. “The United States maintains broad exceptions and authorizations for humanitarian aid including agriculture commodities, food, medicine, and medical devices to help the people of Iran combat the coronavirus.”
On Tuesday the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called for sanctions against countries such as Iran to be rolled back to allow their medical systems to fight COVID-19 and limit its spread.
The same day, Iran ruled out “foreign” help to deal with the coronavirus health crisis.
Earlier this month, Tehran asked the International Monetary Fund for $5bn in emergency funding to fight the outbreak.
The US “maximum pressure” campaign of successive rounds of sanctions kicked off in 2018 after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal Iran struck with six major world powers. Washington is trying to force Tehran back to the negotiation table by squeezing it economically.
The sanctions imposed by the US Treasury on Thursday targeted companies and individuals involved in the construction and maritime services industries.
The US accuses the targeted entities and individuals of engaging in or enabling smuggling through the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr; money laundering through Iraqi front companies, selling oil to the Syrian regime, smuggling weapons to Iraq and Yemen, intimidating Iraqi politicians and diverting funds and public donations made to an “ostensibly religious institution” to supplement Iranian military budgets.