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Menendez & Engel Propose Policies for Addressing COVID-19 in Iran

WASHINGTON Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and Representative Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today proposed a series of policies addressing one key part of the global COVID-19 outbreak. The lawmakers’ proposals would help ensure humanitarian assistance will be able to flow to Iranian citizens who need it most, while seeking to avoid enriching and empowering the dangerous regime. 

“The Iranian people have suffered for decades under the Iranian regime’s oppression, resource mismanagement, and dangerous propaganda—all of which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis,” said Ranking Member Menendez. “In the midst of this global pandemic, however, Iran and its proxies insist on threatening the people of Iran, the United States, and regional stability. The United States has imposed sanctions on Iran for its nefarious nuclear weapons development, support for terrorism and human rights abuses.  There is no evidence that the regime has stopped its sanctionable behavior. Moreover, simply lifting sanctions that have been imposed for ongoing malign behavior will not provide immediate or meaningful relief for the Iranian people. Congress has made clear through legislation that our sanctions regime should never hinder humanitarian and medical relief. To that end, the Trump Administration has a number of technical and public diplomacy tools it should use to ensure that the United States does not contribute to the Iranian regime’s cruelty of preventing humanitarian relief from reaching those most in need.”

“Iran has become one of the countries hardest hit by the novel coronavirus, and the tragedy there is growing by the day. The Iranian regime, however, has diverted medical equipment, declined U.S. and other assistance, and continued to support dangerous terrorists around the world even in the midst of this crisis.  The Iranian people shouldn’t suffer the deadly consequences of their leaders’ incompetence and corruption,” said Chairman Engel. “Iran remains a threat to the United States with its nuclear program, as the leading state sponsor of terrorism, and by backing groups attacking American personnel in the region, and we will not relax efforts to confront these malign policies.  But we also have a shared obligation to combat this deadly pandemic and to help people who are suffering wherever they are.” 

The United States has taken steps in recent weeks to help the Iranian people in their fight against COVID-19.  On February 27th, the Treasury Department granted broad authority to allow humanitarian transactions with the Central Bank of Iran. On March 6th, the Treasury Department posted a new FAQ on their website with respect to humanitarian transactions. At the same time, the Administration’s rhetoric has been chilling to those who want to participate in humanitarian relief in Iran.

Today, Ranking Member Menendez and Chairman Engel proposed that the Trump Administration take the following additional policy steps:

  • Publicly clarify that U.S. law does not penalize medical or humanitarian transactions meant to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and publicly promote ways that financial institutions and governments around the world can help fight the pandemic in Iran.  
  • Address banks’ reluctance to finance sales of medical goods to Iran even though these transactions are exempt from U.S. sanctions. Without such “bank derisking,” Iran’s ability to import medical items is unnecessarily hampered. 
  • Work quickly with other governments to set up humanitarian channels for companies to provide COVID-19 related assistance to Iran, modeled on the existing Swiss humanitarian channel. Companies should not be penalized or sanctioned if they are legitimately providing humanitarian or medical supplies which will help the Iranian people combat the spread and effects of COVID-19 in that country.  
  • Temporarily raise the ceiling on the amount of funds permitted to be sent to Iran for humanitarian aid under General License E or specify that COVID-related payments are not counted under that cap.   

Additionally, fighting this pandemic will require all of us to commit to global humanitarian relief. The government of Iran should take immediate steps to promote the health and safety of those in Iran by:  

  • Releasing all politically-held dual nationals from prison who may be at increased risk for contracting COVID-19.
  • Accepting U.S. offers of assistance to support the Iranian people.