The US sent Iran a blunt message this week: the spread of the coronavirus will not save it from US sanctions that are choking off its oil revenues and isolating its economy.
Addressing reporters, US Special Representative for Iranian Affairs Brian Hook said Washington's policy of maximum pressure on Tehran's regime will continue.
“US sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran,” he stressed.
Hook added that the US sent a diplomatic note to Iran offering help with coronavirus “and it was quickly rejected.”
He also blamed Iran’s leadership for its coronavirus crisis, saying that Iran “spends billions on terrorism and foreign wars” and that if it spent one tenth of this “on a better health care system, the Iranian people would have been much better off.”
Washington imposed new sanctions on Iran this week in what it describes as its “maximum pressure” campaign to curb Tehran's nuclear, missile and regional activities, stressing that these sanctions do not stop the flow of humanitarian goods.
The US administration blacklisted five companies based in the United Arab Emirates, three in mainland China, three in Hong Kong and one in South Africa for trade in Iran’s petrochemicals.
“While Iran is an epicenter of this virus outbreak and facing true economic catastrophe ... there will be no relief on sanctions,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg of the Center for a New American Security think tank.
Meanwhile, Tehran released US citizen Michael White from custody but said he must stay in Iran.
Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution think tank said Iran allowing White or other detained US citizens to fly home might appeal to US President Donald Trump.
“I still don’t believe this administration wants to provide a lot of leeway to the Iranian authorities but that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t be looking for every opportunity to” get medical supplies into Iran, she said.
The outbreak in Iran was likely to spread as Iranians travel for the Nowruz new year’s celebration, she added, saying this could hurt US security partners across the region.
Mark Dubowitz, an Iran hawk with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies policy group, said Washington could send medical goods to Iran via private groups but should not ease sanctions.
“At the very time Iranian-backed 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,” he said, referring to last week’s attack on a military camp in Iraq that killed one British and two US personnel.
“We should be sending medical supplies directly to Iranians through non-governmental organizations and bypass the regime.”