U.S. sanctions deadly in Iran, Venezuela

By Melanie Calderon

Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)


With the novel coronavirus infecting more than 4 million people around the world as of this writing, the U.S.-Iranian brinkmanship in January seems like a subplot in the larger 2020 news cycle. Nevertheless, the same tensions that plagued what many feared would be “World War 3” in early January also mire Iran’s response to the coronavirus and parallel Venezuela’s current struggles. 


Let’s review some recent history, first with regard to Iran. Three days into 2020, United States President Trump authorized an airstrike outside the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The strike targeted and killed several Iraqi and Iranian military personnel, most notably Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. This strike that seemed to come out of nowhere was the U.S. response to consistent strikes between the American military and Iranian proxies and the continuous geopolitical struggles between the nations that have heightened under the Trump administration.


Sanctions on Iran were imposed by U.S. President Trump shortly after his administration decided to abandon the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal. These sections come in the form of banking restrictions that prevent business between banks and Iranian companies and as an embargo on Iran’s oil exports. 


This severely limits Iran’s international buying power and segregates them from the world economy, hindering their attempts to purchase medical equipment and thus supply humanitarian aid to help combat the rising number of cases and deaths resulting from Covid-19. 


The United States insists that there are exemptions for humanitarian aid built into these sanctions. According to the U.S. government, medical devices and medicine are included in these exemptions. However, these exceptions are highly complicated. Hostile U.S. rhetoric directed at Iran incite fear of sanctions and inhibit others from being willing to work with the Iranian government, thus rendering these U.S. sanction exemptions a charade. As a result, Human Rights Watch claims that these sanctions are threatening the health of millions of Americans by impeding Iran’s ability to buy crucial medical devices like ventilators needed to treat Covid-19 patients. 


On February 14th, amidst the onset of Iran’s Covid-19 crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News that “Things are much worse for the Iranian people [with the US sanctions], and we are convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.” This follows the U.S. playbook, deployed most notably against the socialist and progressive governments of Latin America, of using its economic muscle to affect standard of living and foment dissent. While U.S. administrations used this tactic covertly, Pompeo admitted to the goal openly. 


Then over a month later on March 26th, in the midst of the U.S.’s own coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. introduced a new round of sanctions targeting individuals and companies linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iranian leaders and others have therefore accused the U.S. of exploiting this health crisis. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, even went so far as to call the sanctions “medical terror.” Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, also condemned the U.S.’s actions, blaming the U.S. for Iran’s overwhelmed healthcare system, saying “this was the best historic opportunity for the Americans to turn away from their wrong path and for once to say to the Iranian nation that they are not an anti-Iranian people.”


As of May 6, Iran has over 100,000 confirmed cases and over 6,000 deaths. Its economy is also suffering, with its GDP expected to shrink by one-third this year along with a $10 billion budget deficit. Therefore, the government has minimal means to quarantine residents, few resources, cannot provide economic support for those unemployed by the virus, and cannot bail out businesses. These precarious circumstances have forced the Iranian government to seek economic support in the form of a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Although the European Union has voiced their support for the loan, the U.S. recently blocked approval.


Similar situation unfolding in Venezuela 


The Trump administration recently tightened sanctions against Venezuelan officials, prohibiting them from conducting business with U.S. companies and citizens, after the Department of Justice indicted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for drug trafficking on dubious grounds. U.S. Attorney General William Barr echoed similar sentiments as Secretary of State Pompeo when announcing the charges against Maduro. Barr hoped the indictment during the coronavirus pandemic would persuade Venezuelans to rebel against Maduro and said that “this is the best way to support the Venezuelan people: to rid this country of this corrupt cabal.” 


Maduro similarly accused the U.S. of “inhumane” exploitation of the virus. Sanctions against Venezuela especially hamper their medical supplies. Medical equipment necessary to combat the virus is on a list of items requiring U.S. Treasury authorization. And although Venezuela currently only has reported 367 cases and 10 deaths, it is expected to be one of the hardest hit countries as the virus promulgates through communities. Similar to many countries in the Global South, only 25% of Venezuelan doctors have a consistent supply of water, and two-thirds of doctors do not have the adequate personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, or even soap needed to protect them from infection, according to Time Magazine. Perhaps most troubling is the lack of resources for the most severe cases–there are only 73 intensive care beds in the whole country.


As outrage has increased, other countries have stepped up to provide Iran and Venezuela the resources necessary to combat the spread of the virus. Russia and China have called for the U.S. to abolish the sanctions, while China has offered Venezuela 55 tons of testing equipment, personal protective gear, respirators, antiviral medicines and X-ray machines. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom vowed to provide medical supplies under INSTEX– a financial mechanism that allows countries to conduct business while circumventing U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, the European Union donated $22 million to Iran, while Japan donated $23.5 million.


Back home in the U.S., lawmakers have been outspoken in their disapproval of the sanctions. In late March Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Reb. Ilhan Omar drafted a letter then signed by nearly three dozen other members of Congress, urging President Trump to halt sanctions. The United Nations, international human rights organizations, and the Center for a New American Security have all condemned the continued U.S. sanctions, saying “The United States should not now be in the business of compounding the pain and suffering of the people of Venezuela and Iran.” 


Nevertheless, the Trump administration has refused to ease sanctions, maintaining that the sanctions exclude medical supplies. Sanctions, especially in the time of a pandemic, are the most cruel sort of policy violence that will continue to mean the loss of life for the most vulnerable of Iran and Venezuela. 




Melanie Calderon is a graduating senior at Cornell University, majoring in American Studies with a minor in Law and Society.


The cover image, a photo by Guillermo Ramos Flamerich, is licensed under the Creative Commons. It shows el Palacio Miraflores, Caracas, Venezuela.

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