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If Biden actually wants to help Iranians, there's an easy way to do it

Mani Mostofi   

If Biden actually wants to help Iranians, there's an easy way to do it
  • The Biden administration has said more than once that it wants to tailor US sanctions to avoid unintended harm.
  • Despite that goal, many people, including 84 million Iranians, still suffer under US sanctions despite technical exemptions.

Last Monday, the Biden administration published its 2021 sanctions review, intended to guide the administration's use of sanctions moving forward.

In the report, the administration claims it must begin "calibrating sanctions to mitigate unintended economic, political and humanitarian impact." Sound familiar?

We also heard this same sentiment from then-presidential candidate Biden on the campaign trail calling for the US to put divisive politics aside and fulfill its obligation to provide humanitarian relief to countries - most specifically Iran.

But the reality is much different. Even though humanitarian trade is technically exempted from US sanctions, millions of people continue to suffer at the hands of sanctions regimes, particularly the 84 million citizens of Iran.

It's time for Biden to turn his rhetoric into action. As one of the Democrats' chief sanctions architects confirms, sanctions are causing massive shortages of medicines, limiting access to food, and gutting the livelihoods of ordinary citizens in Iran, and hurting women most of all. Trump's maximum-pressure policy and the Covid pandemic has only exacerbated the situation.

After all, Iran has experienced one of the highest Covid infection and death rates in the world, with roughly 5.7 million known infections and over 122,000 deaths. There is no doubt about it - Iran's own internal turmoil has absolutely complicated the nation's ability to combat the virus, especially after the Supreme Leader decided to ban Western-made vaccines earlier this year, only to reverse it months later.

But let's be clear, a major hurdle that Iran faces in reversing the impact of this deadly virus are the sanctions. US sanctions have significantly driven up the cost of COVID treatment making it hard for everyone to access, alongside limiting supply of rare and vital medicines to fight other serious diseases like cancer.

And the few actions the Biden administration has taken to facilitate any aid to Iran have had little to no impact. While the US Treasury Department has exempted humanitarian trade from sanctions restrictions, it's not enough because international banks and companies have been deterred from engaging for fear of running afoul of the myriad US sanctions laws against Iran.

In June, the Treasury Department took another step and issued a general license ostensibly allowing Covid related aid to flow to Iran, but while it looks good on paper, it still has not solved the reluctance of institutions to step in given the lack of clarity around whether banks are actually permitted to facilitate payments.

Luckily, there are quick steps Biden could take to get much needed relief to Iranians and make good on his promises.

First, the United States should provide clearer, public assurances to financial institutions, companies, and governments alike who engage in humanitarian trade with Iran, including through comfort letters as well as whitelisting acceptable Iranian financial institutions that this type of trade will not be penalized.

Second, the administration should greenlight Iran's request for a $5 billion emergency IMF loan to combat COVID, which Trump blocked last year.

And finally, the US must begin to unfreeze some of Iran's foreign assets so that they can begin to meaningfully use the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement channel (SHTA), set up in coordination with the Trump administration, and the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchange (INSTEX), both of which remain the best conduits for COVID relief.

This way Iran can begin purchasing food, medicine, and medical supplies through mechanisms that guarantee these funds are used for humanitarian purposes only.

Remember, the current administration has already shown a willingness to unfreeze similar funds when it did so to allow the Islamic Republic to pay its dues to the UN. As important as UN voting rights are, medical supplies and Covid vaccines should receive at least the same level of attention.

All of these actions can be done quickly with the stroke of a pen, and without them ordinary Iranians are facing a long and deadly road out of this pandemic.

Why, then, is the current administration so hesitant? With the JCPOA talks currently stalled, it could be that Biden wants to use humanitarian relief as a pressure point to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.

Some may argue that Biden fears taking any measures that could be construed by Iran-hawks as a "concession" to Tehran. But rather than a "concession," the decision to facilitate humanitarian trade mechanisms should be seen as an affirmation of the US's commitment to lead on Covid relief and mitigating the harm of sanctions.

The Iranian people's wellbeing should not be held hostage to the toxic politics between Tehran and Washington. The Biden administration has a chance to step in and take action beyond the same old rhetoric.

Mani Mostofi is the director of the MIAAN Group.


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