WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The devastation of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran is raising pressure on the United States to ease sanctions on the Islamic Republic. So far, the Trump administration isn't budging.
Iran has reported more than 1,650 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic and its leaders and some aid groups say America's crushing "maximum pressure" campaign against it is worsening a humanitarian disaster.
The US says it stands ready to help Iran with the virus while simultaneously blaming the growing crisis on the regime's mismanagement.
"US sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran," Mr Brian Hook, the State Department's point person on Iran issues, said in an interview.
"The Ayatollah has vast resources at his personal disposal. We have broad exemptions that allow for the sale of medicines and medical devices by US persons or from the United States to Iran."
Yet finding companies willing to navigate US rules in an effort to sell to Iran but sidestep punishing American sanctions has been difficult since the Trump administration began ratcheting up pressure in 2018.
That makes it even harder to get purely humanitarian goods into the country, said Ms Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
"These exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods," said Ms Sepehri Far. "We saw letters by banks and companies refusing to conduct humanitarian trade with Iran."
Mr Jarrett Blanc, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation under President Barack Obama, said that previous US administrations would typically send officials to Europe and Asia to help ease the path to humanitarian aid by clarifying how the exemptions work.
"The US has to do a lot of work to make sure institutions understand it's safe, otherwise no one wants to touch it," Mr Blanc said, while adding that he doesn't think US sanctions are to blame for the growing outbreak in Iran. "This administration has done the opposite by scaring off humanitarian aid. The messaging they're sending is that there's no way you can do the proper due diligence for something like this."
President Donald Trump on Sunday (March 22) suggested his offers for assistance to Iran - as well as North Korea - to combat the virus are genuine, saying "Iran is really going through a difficult period with respect to this".
Yet some members of the Trump administration have speculated that with all the challenges Iran faces - the sanctions, a teetering economy, disputed elections and animosity over the violent suppression of protests - the coronavirus epidemic might be the thing that pushes the regime from power at last.
Even as the outbreak has spread in Iran, the US has continued to impose more restrictions, targeting a group of companies involved in the petrochemical trade and a handful of nuclear scientists in successive measures this month.
The Trump administration says its sanctions are aimed at pressuring Iran's leadership into abandoning its nuclear programme, ending support for groups in the region such as Hizbollah and halting the development of ballistic missiles.
China and Russia - former partners in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Mr Trump abandoned - have stepped up calls for the US to relax its sanctions.
While that's not surprising, there are signs that European countries are increasingly crossing the sanctions threshold and helping Iran where they can, according to one Western diplomat in Teheran. That's because the US stance amid the crisis is frustrating many European Union nations, the diplomat said.
"Unlawful US sanctions drained Iran's economic resources, impairing ability to fight #COVID19," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted last week. "Join the growing global campaign to disregard US sanctions on Iran."
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the US was at odds with other world powers, who disagreed with the president's decision to pull out of the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimpose sanctions.
Britain has quietly prodded the Trump administration to ease sanctions because of the crisis, the Guardian reported, without saying where it obtained the information.
Last Saturday, a French scholar detained in Teheran was released after he showed signs of the coronavirus, while an Iranian engineer held in France and wanted by the US was released by authorities there. The apparent prisoner exchange was denounced by the US, which had sought the Iranian engineer's extradition.
"There's an ongoing divide between Americans and Europeans, and I don't think this situation will do anything to bridge that gap," said Mr Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East & North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "There is growing frustration and potentially outrage that Americans won't lower the barriers to get assistance into Iran and that they won't let this be a bridge to build much-needed trust."
Humanitarian organisations, unwilling to pick a public fight with a top contributor, are quietly trying to get supplies into Iran despite US restrictions.
"We want to avoid politicisation of these events," Mr Michael Ryan, chief executive director of the World Health Organisation's emergency programme, told reporters last week, He said the goal is to ensure that "Iran has access to the markets it needs" in order to "free up the necessary resources and to free up and provide the necessary assurances to companies and others".
Iranians say that their economy is weak and unable to cope with the humanitarian toll because of the US sanctions. Last week, Iran turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the first time since the 1960s for aid, though Mr Ali Vaez, the Crisis Group's Iran project director, said the US may try to block the IMF loan in order to keep up the pressure on the regime.
"Countries like Italy and South Korea, who were not hampered by sanctions, found it difficult to contain and fight the outbreak," he said. "Iran is now fighting it, albeit belatedly, with one hand tied behind its back by sanctions. Its failures, partly due to sanctions, will affect everyone else in the region and beyond."