Skip to main content

Coronavirus: Ilhan Omar calls for lifting of sanctions on Iran amid outbreak

With more than 11,000 reported cases, the Islamic Republic is one of the worst affected by Covid-19 outside of China
Ilhan Omar speaks at rally for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in Minnesota on 2 March (AFP/File photo)
By Sheren Khalel in Washington

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has renewed calls for the US to suspend sanctions against Iran, as the country's crippled health-care system struggles to deal with the rapid spread of the coronavirus.  

"We need to suspend these sanctions before more lives are lost," Omar said via Twitter on Friday, retweeting an earlier post made by well known Iranian-American activist Hoda Katebi.

According to Iranian authorities, there have been more than 11,000 cases of the coronavirus - offically known as Covid-19 - and at least 514 deaths, making the Islamic Republic one of the countries worst hit by the virus.

Katebi said her aunt, who is a doctor in Iran, had reported "massive" shortages of medical supplies, including face masks, as the country struggles to deal with the spread of the disease. 

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


"She keeps giving her face mask to other docs bc there aren't enough for everyone. For the love of GOD we need to end sanctions on Iran NOW," Katebi said on Twitter.

The situation in Iran is expected to worsen as Friday saw the biggest single-day jump in cases since the virus  was detected there. 

The outbreak has prompted authorities to temporarily release about 70,000 prisoners to contain the spread of the illness, which has now reached all of Iran's cities. 

Later on Friday, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced he had sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, asking the international community to "disregard inhuman US sanctions". 

"As the #COVID19 ravages Iran, we should recognize that viruses don't discriminate. To fight them, neither should humans," Zarif said, sharing the letter on Twitter.

Seyyed Abbas Mousavi, a spokesman from the ministry, later said that some nations had responded positively to the letter, but did not give specific details as to which countries had agreed to provide support. 

“After the Twitter posts from Dr. Zarif, a number of countries and organisations expressed their readiness to send medical aid or to provide and sell them to Iran," Mousavi said. 

Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Middle East Eye that confusion around US sanction regulations have been a major obstacle in getting humanitarian aid into Iran.

"Even though humanitarian trade is exempted from sanctions, many companies and banks have been worried about engaging with Iran, fearing US secondary sanctions," Far told MEE. 

"Given the burden sanctions have already caused on Iranians access to healthcare, we think the US and international community should proactively ensure Iran is receiving the medical supply and relief material they need to combat this very serious health crisis," she said. 

Olivier Vandecasteele, Relief International’s (RI) country director for Iran, said that the impact of Covid-19 on Iran has been "enormous". 

"The streets in Tehran are almost deserted," Vandecasteele said in an RI report on Wednesday. 

RI has been working on the ground, partnering with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to help track distributed goods and increase the public’s understanding about strategies for preventing the spread of the virus, but US sanctions have created extra obstacles, Vandecasteele said. 

"One of the problems for international aid has been to clarify the legal issues related to sanctions to ensure that medical supplies and medicines can be brought into Iran," he explained. 

'Sanctions are economic warfare'

Congresswoman Omar had been calling for an end to sanctions against Iran before the start of the outbreak.

"This makes no sense. Sanctions are economic warfare," Omar tweeted in January. "They have already caused medical shortages and countless deaths in Iran.

"You cannot claim to want deescalation and then announce new sanctions with no clear goal. This is not a measured response!" 

President Donald Trump began reinstating sanctions against Tehran in May 2018 when he pulled the US out of a multilateral nuclear deal implemented during the Obama administration two years previously.

Ilhan Omar's US foreign policy overhaul: Inside the seven bills
Read More »

Since then, Trump has committed the US to a "maximum pressure" campaign against the country, regularly announcing additional sanctions on businesses, economic sectors, and officials.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran came to a head in January when Trump ordered the assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Iran retaliated to the attack with a missile strike on an Iraqi military base housing US troops, which left more than 100 American personnel with brain injuries.

Lower-level military strikes continue to be exchanged between the two countries in neighbouring Iraq. But in Iran, US sanctions have crippled the economy, including the medical industry, creating a dire situation for the country amid the pandemic.  

In February, Omar introduced a bill in the House that would allow Congress to limit Trump's power to place international sanctions and declare national emergencies.

The Congressional Oversight of Sanctions Act (COSA) stipulates that a joint resolution of Congress would be required to approve any emergency sanctions issued by the US. Congress would have to approve the emergency sanctions within 60 days. It would also require congressional approval to renew existing sanctions.

The bill was released as one piece of a seven-part package of legislation introduced by Omar, seeking to overhaul US foreign policy. 

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.