Biden joins fellow US Democrats in call for easing Iran sanctions

The Democratic presidential frontrunner says US has moral obligation to aid those in need regardless of where they live.

    Members of the Iranian Red Crescent Society test people with possible coronavirus symptoms on a highway outside Tehran, Iran [Abedin Taherkenared/EPA-EFE]
    Members of the Iranian Red Crescent Society test people with possible coronavirus symptoms on a highway outside Tehran, Iran [Abedin Taherkenared/EPA-EFE]

    Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden on Thursday called on the administration of United States President Donald Trump to ease economic sanctions on Iran as a humanitarian gesture during the global coronavirus pandemic.

    The former vice president said the US has a moral obligation to be among the first to offer aid to people in need regardless of where they live when confronting a virus that knows no borders or political affiliations.

    More:

    "While the Iranian government has failed to respond effectively to this crisis, including lying and concealing the truth from its own people, and it continues to act provocatively in the region, the Iranian people are hurting desperately," Biden said in a statement. "Whatever our profound differences with the Iranian government, we should support the Iranian people."

    Biden's statement comes just days after 34 members of the US Congress - most from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party - signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for easing the sanctions. Among the signatories was Biden's fellow Democratic presidential contender, Senator Bernie Sanders.

    "With neighboring countries ravaged by war, medical systems either in disarray and underfunded, and the constant migration of pilgrims and immigrant workers, the virus's further spread in the Middle East poses serious risk both to human health and life and to regional economic and political stability," the letter stated.

    Trump ramped up his attacks on Iran on Wednesday by claiming that it or its proxies were planning a sneak attack on US targets in neighbouring Iraq. He tweeted that Tehran would pay a "very heavy price" for any such action, but offered no details.

    The Trump administration has repeatedly tightened sanctions designed to choke off Tehran's oil exports in the last month as the coronavirus outbreak has spread in Iran. Last week, it slapped new sanctions on 20 Iranian people and companies accused of supporting Shia militia in Iraq that are believed to be responsible for attacks on bases where US forces are located.

    Biden acknowledged that there are already humanitarian exceptions to the sanctions in place, but said many countries and international aid organisations remain leery of offering help for fear of running afoul of the US sanctions. He said that in response, Iran should as a gesture release any American citizens it currently has detained in the country.

    "Artificially limiting the flow of international humanitarian assistance to pursue a political point will not only allow the Iranian government to deflect responsibility for its own botched response, it will increase the threat this virus poses to the American people, now and in the future," Biden said.

    Specific steps that should be taken, Biden said, include issuing broad licences to pharmaceutical and medical device companies, creating a mechanism for banks, insurers and other firms to help Iranians in need, and issuing new sanctions guidance to aid organisations to reassure them that they will not be punished for engaging in humanitarian trade with Iran to support its coronavirus response.

    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
    Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, with his protective mask, attends a cabinet meeting in Tehran earlier this month [Source: Mediawires/Presidency of Iran handout]

    Iran's Ministry of Health and Medical Education said on Thursday that the coronavirus has killed 3,160 in the country.

    Several high-ranking government officials have tested positive for the virus, including the speaker of the Iranian parliament. Health officials there announced on Thursday that Ali Larijani, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander who has led the country's legislative body since 2008, tested positive for the virus and was being treated under quarantine.

    In a rare acknowledgment of the severity of the outbreak in his country, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the coronavirus may remain through the end of the Iranian year, which just began late last month, state TV reported on Thursday.

    "We always have to follow the health protocols provided by the health ministry," Rouhani added.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies