US and Iran seek gains as coronavirus bites

Donald Trump wants US nationals released to fulfil his campaign pledge to bring prisoners home

This photo provided courtesy of the White family, shows U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, Thursday, March 19, 2020 in Mashhad, Iran. Two Americans imprisoned in the Middle East have been released. Iran has granted a medical furlough to U.S. Navy veteran Michael White as part of its efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus, and a Lebanese judge orderrs the release of Amer Fakhoury because more than 10 years had passed since the crimes he was accused of committing.  (Courtesy of the White Family via AP)
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The United States is seeking to exploit Iran’s weakness from the double-blows of coronavirus and economic sanctions to fulfil President Donald Trump’s election promise of securing freedom for jailed nationals abroad, according to analysts.

Iran has temporarily released the imprisoned US Navy veteran Michael White on medical grounds to who has been in jail since his arrest in 2018. He, along with Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, were among some 85,000 prisoners temporarily freed by the regime as it battles to curb the devastating spread of coronavirus.

The releases followed a series of behind-the-scenes discussions between Western governments and Iran, which has also suffered from the tumbling oil price. The leadership’s authority has been further undermined by Iranians defying restrictions to take to the streets to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Relatives of those still held by the regime have urged governments to keep the pressure on the regime until their nationals are released.

Those still detained include Anoosheh Ashoori, a British-Iranian engineer held at Evin prison, who was jailed for 12 years for spying, and Dubai-based businessman Siamak Namazi, who was served four of a ten-year sentence for espionage.

His father Baquer, a former UN worker, was also held. He was freed before the current round of releases on medical grounds but has been barred from leaving the country. Their supporters say they are being held as hostages by Iran.

“I think this is a window of opportunity that will not come up again for a good many years,” said Mr Ashoori’s wife Sherry Izadi. “Iran is in desperate need of international aid.

“This is the best opportunity for the international community to tell Iran that it can show goodwill by releasing dual national and foreign nationals. Once Iran can be shown to be trusted, then we will give you this aid. It should be made conditional.”

Senior US officials said that Iran, through Swiss intermediaries, was offered medical assistance to tackle the epidemic, but was rebuffed. The epidemic has killed more than 1,400 people in Iran and infected nearly 20,000.

Asked on Thursday if the US was considering sanctions relief in exchange for future prisoner releases, Brian Hook – the president’s key adviser on Iran – said: “We have communicated – I don't want to get into the specifics, but we sent a diplomatic note to the regime through the Swiss making an offer, and it was quickly rejected.”

He said that Iran had not commented on why it decided to release Mr White – who has to stay in Iran under the terms of his release. He had been jailed for a decade for insulting  Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and  and posting anti-establishment remarks on social media under a pseudonym.

The Trump administration is playing a dangerous game in potentially tying releases to sanctions relief and aid as thousands of people suffer in the pandemic, said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran programme at the Washington DC-based Middle East Institute.

“I think the US definitely has to be careful of unnecessary sanctions enforcement right now,” he said. “If it results in the deaths of innocent Iranians, it will explode in the face of Donald Trump in election year.

Already [Secretary or State Mike] Pompeo is being hammered for imposing new sanctions. They have no bearing on Iranian citizens but the timing is seen as insensitive.”

Iran has also sought to take advantage of the situation to ease the sanctions imposed on the country as it grapples with the extent of the crisis.

It has sought to convey messages through countries such as China and the UK suggesting that the Trump administration ease the burden on Iran, said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East programme at London-based think tank Chatham House.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter that the US “gleefully takes pride” in killing Iranian citizens and citing a Reuters headline suggesting that the Trump administration would not let up its so-called maximum pressure sanctions campaign.

“The White House takes its “maximum pressure” to a new level of inhumanity with its utter contempt for human life.”

Ms Vakil said: “Both the US and the Islamic Republic are using the circumstances to try to extract concessions from each other but it’s at the expense of individuals, unfortunately.”

“It’s quite a tricky gamble for both of them. It’s an election year and he [Trump] is trying to deliver on an election promise to release dual and national detainees.

“This is perhaps an opportunity for the US to government to secure the release of Michael White, who is currently on furlough, and move him out and maybe one or two others like Siamak Namazi and his father.”

The economic pressure has seen Iran apply for $5 billion from the International Monetary Fund – a tenth of the organisation’s available funds to tackle coronavirus – and the organisation said it was “proceeding expeditiously” with the request. The IMF did not respond to queries about the state of the application on Friday.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced that he would pardon 10,000 convicts to mark Nowruz and, in a speech to mark Nowruz, curtailed his usual fiery anti-US rhetoric.

He often promises pardons to mark Nowruz but the 10,000 unusually included a pledge to release political prisoners in another potential concession.

“Prisoner releases have never happened on this scale before,” said Mr Vatanka. “This is a radical decision by the authorities which reflects the kind of dire circumstances they are facing with regards to the coronavirus.”