Will America Ease Sanctions on Iran to Alleviate COVID-19 Concerns?
1. Iran is struggling to beat the pandemic. Is it time for sanction relief?
With more than 55,000 cases and around 3,500 deaths, Iran is one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. A deadly mixture of government neglect, large public gatherings and an attempt to hide the outbreak made the Islamic Republic the largest coronavirus hotspot in the Middle East.
Iran also faces an additional complicating factor in battling the virus’s spread: A comprehensive set of U.S.-led international sanctions, which have crippled Iran’s economy, limited many services in the country, and imposed tough restrictions on the nation’s ties with the world and its ability to trade and import goods.
The sanctions, part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, follow America’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal. They are aimed at getting the leadership in Tehran to agree to a new nuclear deal, stop ballistic activity, put an end to its meddling in neighboring countries, and deter Iran from threatening free oil tanker passage in the region and ensure the safety of U.S. allies in the Gulf.
The sanctions were designed to avoid any interference in the flow of humanitarian help and medical relief, but with trade, international banking and transportation all but fully forbidden, the sanctions have made dealing with the coronavirus outbreak all the more difficult. A UN report noted that due to the sanctions, Iran cannot access respirators and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.
Which is why a new and growing school of thought in the U.S. has been calling on the administration to take a step back and allow some sanctions relief, not because Iran has evolved into a positive player in the Middle East power struggle, but as a way of easing its struggle to stop the spread of the virus and help those in need of medical treatment.
“Our many disputes with the government of Iran or others should not stand in the way of actions that can materially help innocent people weather a pandemic,” wrote a group of lawmakers in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Among the signatories was Senator Bernie Sanders. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading the race for the Democratic nomination, also issued a statement calling on the Trump administration to release/ease some of the sanctions.
Trump has not been oblivious to the dire situation in Iran and has publicly offered American help, which Iran has rejected. But at the same time, his administration has refused to enact any relief, and in fact imposed new sanctions. Specific measures, which would allow Iran easier access to medical supplies from abroad, are being debated in the administration, but no step has been taken thus far.
2. Will the pro-Israel community fight to keep the sanctions?
The possibility of putting a crack in the otherwise iron-clad sanctions regime against Iran seems to run counter to everything many in the pro-Israel advocacy world have been fighting for in past years.
Israel, AIPAC and many other Jewish and pro-Israel evangelical groups had cheered Trump’s decision to break the nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions and applauded Pompeo for following up with numerous actions aimed at tightening the screws and further pressuring Tehran.
Now, they’re in a tough position. Israel and many of its U.S. supporters do not wish to see the sanctions fall apart, especially since the measures have proven effective in convincing the Iranian regime that there’s a clear economic price for their regional behavior. “At the very time Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq are killing Americans and Brits and others, this would be exactly the wrong time to be providing any kind of economic relief to the regime,” Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Reuters. Instead, he suggested America should provide direct medical aid to Iran.
But the Israeli government and AIPAC have kept a relatively low profile on the issue, avoiding any public campaign aimed at blocking sanctions relief. After all, no one wants to pick a fight with a nation struggling to save its people from a deadly pandemic.
But it’s more than a PR issue.
Temporary and limited sanctions relief isn’t necessarily an idea Israel would oppose, as long as it is focused on COVID-19-related measures.
The issue may have to do more with Trump than with the Iranians.
The president has indicated many times in the past couple of years that he’s eager to sit down with the Iranians and cut a deal. Iran, to the relief of Israeli leaders, has thus far refused. But if the pandemic leads to an opening, even a limited one, Trump may be the one seeking to widen it and turn it into an opportunity for deal-making, just like he tried to do with North Korea.
3. Endorsing Andrew Cuomo
In his sober yet reassuring daily briefings, and with his warm and witty dialogues with his brother, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has developed quite a following.
Cuomo fans include many who are simply looking for a sane voice to lead them through these turbulent times and others who believed that Cuomo is just what the Democrats need right now–a leader who has both the charisma and the experience to take on Donald Trump.
The call to recruit Cuomo to the Democratic presidential ticket, either as the nominee or as Joe Biden’s running mate, is gaining some momentum, despite the governor’s clear rejection of any presidential aspirations right now.
Joining the call to get Cuomo into the race is at least one Jewish leader: Jack Rosen, a New York businessman and Democratic donor who leads the American Jewish Congress and the American Council for World Jewry, tweeted his endorsement:
“@JoeBiden made an honorable pledge to pick a woman as a running mate, something which I support strongly, but he might want to also consider @NYGovCuomo. Governor Cuomo’s leadership during the #coronavirus outbreak shows that he would be ready to serve.”
4. Mounting pressure on Bernie to bow out
The Democratic primary race, for those following, is still going on.
Most upcoming elections were postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Currently, Biden is leading in the delegate count, though both he and Sanders are still a long way from clinching the nomination.
Yet for the public, the race seems to be all but over. Biden has a commanding lead in polls, and with attention diverted elsewhere, most Democrats seem resigned to the reality that the former vice president will be the one facing Trump in November.
Now, it seems that this understanding is beginning to hit close to Sanders’ inner circle.
According to The Washington Post, some of Bernie’s top aides, including campaign manager Faiz Shakir, are urging the Vermont senator to call it quits now, instead of dragging out a race he has no chance of winning.
Sanders, according to the report, is not ruling out this idea.
5. Is Ron Dermer on his way out?
It’s been more than six years since Ron Dermer became Israel’s ambassador to Washington. In this period, he has arguably been the most influential envoy Israel has had in the American capital, spearheading Netanyahu’s huge gamble to take on the Obama administration and congressional Democrats and to steer Israeli-American ties into partisan waters.
Now, the Dermer era could be coming to an end.
It’s not that Dermer has done anything wrong. On the contrary, it was Netanyahu who pleaded with the ambassador in this past year to stay on.
It’s only a political calculation.
According to reports from the ongoing coalition negotiations in Israel, Netanyahu simply needs the Washington spot to compensate Likud ministers who might end up with no cabinet portfolio when he forms his new coalition government.