US offers Iran unconditional coronavirus aid but no change on sanctions

The US aid offer for help will not be matched with sanction relief in response to Iran's nuclear and regional activities

epa08322889 US President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks on the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, during a Coronavirus Task Force briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 25 March 2020. Congress is finishing final negotiations on a two trillion dollars stimulus package, the largest in U.S history, designed to stabilize the U.S. economy and directly assist individuals in the sudden economic downturn causes by the rapidly intensifying coronavirus crisis.  EPA/SARAH SILBIGER / POOL
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The Trump administration is offering the Iranian government “unconditional humanitarian aid” to help mitigate the coronavirus pandemic in the country.

However, it is stopping short at halting its sanctions program or offering relief.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus expressed readiness on Wednesday to send unconditional humanitarian help Iran to help combat the coronavirus.

"We are offering unconditional humanitarian help…a 100 per cent offer of medical help to the [Iranian] regime,  and we hope that they would take us up [on the offer]," Ms Ortagus told The National. 

Iran has the sixth highest number of reported cases of the virus globally, surpassing 27,000 on Wednesday. Its death toll now stands at 2,077.

The country has not enforced a complete lockdown and the early spreading from Iran reached neighboring Iraq, the Gulf states and Lebanon.

The US offer for help, however, will not be matched with sanction relief or abandoning imposition of new economic penalties on Iran in response to its nuclear and regional activities.

“US sanctions remain in place,” Ms Ortagus said, insisting that the US will not target humanitarian or medical goods.

“We want to provide assistance but we can’t force the regime to accept assistance,” she added.

The official accused Iran’s leaders of deflecting from their own coronavirus outbreak by spreading disinformation, and conspiracy theories about the US.

Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei alleged this week that the coronavirus "is specifically built [by US] for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians, which they have obtained through different means".

Ms Ortagus argued that “whether it’s COVID-19 or the downing of the Ukrainian airline, the regime has many examples of lying to its people.” “At this time it has resulted in what is completely catastrophic public health situation for the Iranian people and neighboring countries.”

She said that the spread of the virus has made it hard for Iran to hide its severity including outbreaks in Iranian prisons. But Iran has continued to reject US help.

This week, Iranian authorities decided to expel a team of nine doctors from the humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders.

The leadership is hoping for sanctions relief to deal with the crisis, something that Ms Ortagus insisted will not be possible without a change of behavior from Iran.

“Our sanctions never covered medical equipment even before COVID-19,” she said.

But Suzanne Maloney, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, argued that the US government maybe losing the narrative on sanctions.

"The US has lost the battle around the narrative, but I doubt the administration will be bothered by that," Ms Maloney told The National. She said while the sanctions "are not the primary cause of the [virus] outbreak, they complicate the response and compound the ordinary Iranians."

The sanctions impact financing humanitarian imports into Iran, including medication and equipment.

Ms Maloney said that at this time “Tehran clearly is deploying this crisis to try to break the sanctions' compliance and efficacy.” But it is unclear, she added, if their strategy will work.