Joe Biden’s Cowardly Position on Iran Sanctions

The presumptive Democratic nominee is failing to call for sanctions to be lifted, even if just for the duration of the pandemic.

Sarah Lazare

Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks on August 7, 2019 in Burlington, Iowa. (Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images)

End­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s max­i­mum pres­sure cam­paign against Iran — which is spik­ing the country’s COVID-19 death rate — should be low-hang­ing fruit for Joe Biden, who is now the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee. The 2015 Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, was laud­ed as a cor­ner­stone of the Oba­ma-Biden admin­is­tra­tion. It gave Iran sanc­tions relief in exchange for con­straints on Iran’s civ­il nuclear enrich­ment. When Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018 and imposed a com­plex matrix of sanc­tions tar­get­ing indus­tries and indi­vid­u­als (unfor­tu­nate­ly fol­low­ing the lead of Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans alike), he not only unleashed col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment on the peo­ple of Iran, but also unrav­eled the flag­ship for­eign pol­i­cy achieve­ment of the Oba­ma era.

Today, people in Iran can’t get basic medical supplies, like ventilators and CT scanners, as they face one of the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks.

The JCPOA was an impor­tant act of diplo­ma­cy — far prefer­able to war — but it was also an extor­tion rack­et, premised on the notion that Iran, which had no nuclear weapons pro­gram, was a threat that had to be con­tained, while the Unit­ed States, which has a mas­sive nuclear weapons arse­nal, is not. And it was signed just months into the U.S.-Saudi‑U.A.E. war on Yemen, which was framed as an effort to counter Iran, whose role in Yemen was vast­ly over­stat­ed. How­ev­er, what is clear is that oppo­si­tion to the deal has come from the most rabid, racist and fanat­i­cal pro-war forces in U.S. pol­i­tics — think tanks and politi­cians who want war with Iran and have no qualms about sac­ri­fic­ing Iran­ian lives. And the con­tin­u­a­tion of sanc­tions, which were tight­ened in the mid­dle of a glob­al pan­dem­ic, is a stag­ger­ing crime against human­i­ty: Today, peo­ple in Iran can’t get basic med­ical sup­plies, like ven­ti­la­tors and CT scan­ners, as they face one of the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks.

Which is what makes Joe Biden’s fail­ure to call for a lift­ing of sanc­tions, even if just dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, so glar­ing. Biden wait­ed until April 2 to break his silence on the issue in a state­ment that opened with the line, In times of glob­al cri­sis, Amer­i­ca should lead. We should be the first to offer help to peo­ple who are hurt­ing or in dan­ger.” It goes on to crit­i­cize Trump’s max­i­mum pres­sure” strat­e­gy, and to declare, What­ev­er our pro­found dif­fer­ences with the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment, we should sup­port the Iran­ian peo­ple.” Yet nowhere in the state­ment does Biden actu­al­ly call for an end to sanc­tions, even if just for a few months — a demand that should be easy for some­how who has laud­ed the JCPOA on the cam­paign trail.

Instead, Biden’s pri­ma­ry demands are focused on pro­vid­ing clear­er guide­lines for human­i­tar­i­an exemp­tions and stream­lin­ing chan­nels for bank­ing and pub­lic health assis­tance from oth­er coun­tries in response to the health emer­gency in Iran.” Biden calls for spe­cif­ic steps:

issu­ing broad licens­es to phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and med­ical device com­pa­nies; cre­at­ing a ded­i­cat­ed chan­nel for inter­na­tion­al banks, trans­porta­tion com­pa­nies, insur­ers, and oth­er ser­vice firms to help Ira­ni­ans access life-sav­ing med­ical treat­ment; issu­ing new sanc­tions guid­ance to these groups and inter­na­tion­al aid orga­ni­za­tions to make it clear how they can imme­di­ate­ly, direct­ly, and legal­ly respond to the tragedy in Iran, with­out fear of penal­ty; and, for enti­ties already con­duct­ing enhanced due dili­gence, it should issue com­fort let­ters to reas­sure them that they will not be sub­ject to U.S. sanc­tions if they engage in human­i­tar­i­an trade with Iran to sup­port its COVID-19 response. 

Cavan Khar­raz­ian, inter­na­tion­al pro­gram researcher for the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research, told In These Times that Biden’s demands are noth­ing more than half mea­sures that allow him to rhetor­i­cal­ly dodge an actu­al call to lift sanc­tions. The way I inter­pret­ed Biden’s com­ments,” Khar­raz­ian says, he was call­ing for the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to stream­line the process and clear chan­nels for human­i­tar­i­an work. That’s some­thing that is the­o­ret­i­cal­ly already sup­posed to be in effect right now. The only thing that helps is to tem­porar­i­ly waive max­i­mum pres­sure sanc­tions imposed by Trump.”

Indeed, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion already claims there are human­i­tar­i­an exemp­tions. The whole world should know that human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance into Iran is wide open. It’s not sanc­tioned,” Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo said on March 20. Yet this exemp­tion is in name only. A com­plex and dif­fi­cult-to-nav­i­gate web of sanc­tions, along­side bel­liger­ence and threats from the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, have spooked com­pa­nies from doing busi­ness with the coun­try. A 2019 report from Human Rights watch found that, even before the pan­dem­ic began, 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.”

Accord­ing to Khar­raz­ian, To sim­ply expand human­i­tar­i­an exemp­tions will take way too long. Right now, with the human­i­tar­i­an exemp­tions that exist, the process of get­ting licences for cru­cial equip­ment to fight COVID-19 can take two to three months through the Office of For­eign Assets Con­trol [the enforce­ment arm of the Trea­sury Depart­ment]. I don’t see how that process can do things quick­ly enough to save lives.”

Yas­mine Taeb, senior pol­i­cy coun­sel at Demand Progress, an activist orga­ni­za­tion, echoed Kharrazian’s con­cerns. When Biden put out his state­ment, it seemed like a real­ly nice state­ment because it is filled with fluff. But if you zoom in, all he is say­ing is we need to clear human­i­tar­i­an chan­nels to Iran and pro­vide assur­ances to enti­ties and com­pa­nies that want to do busi­ness with Iran in response to COVID-19 that they won’t be sub­ject­ed to U.S. sanc­tions. But he stopped short of actu­al­ly call­ing for a waiv­ing of max­i­mum pres­sure sanctions.”

The fact that the Biden team worked on the nuclear deal, and he could­n’t even call for tem­po­rary waive of sanc­tions, even though Biden has indi­cat­ed he would return to JCPOA, does­n’t make sense,” Taeb con­tin­ued. He’s not even sup­port­ing the deal his own admin­is­tra­tion drafted.”

It is worth com­par­ing Biden’s state­ment to an open let­ter led by Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), and signed by 34 mem­bers of Con­gress. The let­ter calls on Pom­peo and Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin to sub­stan­tial­ly sus­pend sanc­tions on Iran dur­ing this glob­al pub­lic health emer­gency in a human­i­tar­i­an ges­ture to the Iran­ian peo­ple to bet­ter enable them to fight the virus.” It goes on to call specif­i­cal­ly for the sus­pen­sion of eco­nom­ic sanc­tions: Sanc­tions relief that should be con­sid­ered are those that encom­pass major sec­tors of the Iran­ian econ­o­my, includ­ing those impact­ing civil­ian indus­tries, Iran’s bank­ing sec­tor and exports of oil, and should last for at least as long as health experts believe the cri­sis will continue.”

The call for relief from eco­nom­ic sanc­tions is impor­tant because Iran, already in the grips of a reces­sion, is poised to suf­fer eco­nom­i­cal­ly from the COVID-19 cri­sis: Any human­i­tar­i­an­ism” must also look at how poor and work­ing-class peo­ple are suf­fer­ing as jobs dry up and wages plummet.

The let­ter won praise from the #End­COVID­Sanc­tions cam­paign, which describes itself as a nation­wide coali­tion of pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions and grass­roots activists work­ing to end the U.S.’s dead­ly blan­ket sanc­tions on Iran.” In a state­ment fol­low­ing the letter’s release, an Iran­ian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er with the No War Cam­paign,” said, If this virus has taught us any­thing, it is that our health and lives are deeply con­nect­ed and inter­de­pen­dent on a glob­al scale. The U.S. must do its part in flat­ten­ing the glob­al curve and lift its dead­ly sanc­tions on Iran immediately.”

Yet, pow­er­ful Democ­rats seem to be align­ing their talk­ing points with Biden’s — not with the authors of this let­ter. On April 3, Sen. Bob Menen­dez (D‑N.J.), Rank­ing Mem­ber of the Sen­ate Com­mit­tee on For­eign Rela­tions, and Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D‑N.Y.), Chair­man of the House Com­mit­tee on For­eign Affairs, released a state­ment issu­ing sim­i­lar demands: Pub­licly clar­i­fy that U.S. law does not penal­ize med­ical or human­i­tar­i­an trans­ac­tions”; Address banks’ reluc­tance to finance sales of med­ical goods to Iran”; Work quick­ly with oth­er gov­ern­ments to set up human­i­tar­i­an chan­nels for com­pa­nies to pro­vide COVID-19 relat­ed assis­tance to Iran”; and Tem­porar­i­ly raise the ceil­ing on the amount of funds per­mit­ted to be sent to Iran for human­i­tar­i­an aid.” And, like Biden, they stopped short of call­ing for an end to max­i­mum pres­sure sanctions.

By fail­ing to call for an end to sanc­tions, Engel and Menen­dez are in good com­pa­ny. The most pow­er­ful Democ­rats in Con­gress — Nan­cy Pelosi (D‑Calif.), the speak­er of the House, Chuck Schumer (D‑N.Y.), Sen­ate minor­i­ty leader, and Rep. Ste­ny Hoy­er (D‑Md.), House major­i­ty leader — all declined to sign the let­ter orga­nized by Sanders, Omar and Oca­sio-Cortez. And promi­nent Biden endors­er Saman­tha Pow­er, for­mer UN ambas­sador, recent­ly pub­lished an arti­cle in the New York Times about the need for U.S. lead­er­ship amid the glob­al pan­dem­ic that doesn’t even men­tion Iran sanc­tions, or numer­ous oth­er U.S. acts of aggression.

But it doesn’t stop there. While declin­ing to call for an end to sanc­tions, Menendez’s state­ment actu­al­ly rein­forces the basic jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for sanc­tions. The Unit­ed States has imposed sanc­tions on Iran for its nefar­i­ous nuclear weapons devel­op­ment, sup­port for ter­ror­ism and human rights abus­es,” he says. There is no evi­dence that the régime 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.”

After claim­ing that lift­ing sanc­tions won’t help Iran’s human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis — a patent­ly untrue state­ment — Menen­dez goes on to call for a num­ber of tech­ni­cal and pro­ce­dur­al tweaks. Con­gress has made clear through leg­is­la­tion that our sanc­tions régime 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 régime’s cru­el­ty of pre­vent­ing human­i­tar­i­an relief from reach­ing those most in need.”

That Biden is align­ing with a sen­a­tor who espous­es this kind of pro-war rhetoric shows that he’s far from where he needs to be on end­ing Iran sanc­tions. Giv­en Biden’s promi­nent posi­tion, any­thing short of call­ing for those sanc­tions to be lift­ed — a posi­tion that is hard­ly rad­i­cal, as Biden should well under­stand — amounts to com­plic­i­ty in the pre­ventable deaths of count­less Iranians.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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