Morning Brief

U.S. Adds More Iran Sanctions Despite Coronavirus Crisis

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the move addresses “funding of terror and other destabilizing activities” following Camp Taji strikes.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a press conference with limited numbers of journalists due to the coronavirus outbreak, at the State Department in Washington DC, on March 17, 2020.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a press conference with limited numbers of journalists due to the coronavirus outbreak, at the State Department in Washington DC, on March 17, 2020. Nicholas Kamm/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. adds more Iran sanctions, the European Central Bank announces major stimulus, Italy’s coronavirus death toll grows, and the U.S.-Canada border closes.

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As Iran Adds More Coronavirus Cases, U.S. Adds More Sanctions

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced further sanctions on Iran on Wednesday, citing the recent rocket attacks in Taji, Iraq, that killed two U.S. service members. According to a statement by Pompeo, the sanctions target “nine entities and three inviduals” mostly from Iran’s petrochemical industry that “provide revenue to the regime that it may use to fund terror and other destabilizing activities.”

On the eve of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called on the international community to end the “collective punishment” brought on by U.S. sanctions, saying it was “virtually impossible” to buy medicine and medical equipment.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who trails former Vice President Joe Biden in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, called for immediate relief for Iran, “As a caring nation, we must lift any sanctions hurting Iran’s ability to address this crisis, including financial sanctions,” he said on Twitter.

How bad is Iran’s  coronavirus crisis? Iran’s health ministry puts the coronavirus death toll at 1,135. However, World Health Organization official Rick Brennan said that figure is likely five times higher, citing lack of adequate testing in Iran. If such figures are being underreported, it would outpace even Italy’s death toll from the pandemic—so far the worst-hit country outside China.

How do sanctions restrict medical supplies? As Esfandyar Batmanghelidj and Abbas Kebriaeezadeh argued in Foreign Policy earlier this month, Iran produces many key products domestically, but “The Iranian companies producing medicine, disinfectants, and protective clothing also have a supply-chain problem; they are dependent on imported ingredients and materials.” And even if they can overcome that obstacle, “U.S. secondary sanctions have restricted humanitarian trade with Iran by scaring off most banks from facilitating the necessary payments.”

Is there a chance of easing sanctions? Speaking to Reuters on Monday one unnamed U.S. official outlined the feeling within the Trump administration, “The regime can’t be trusted to channel whatever money it would gain from the easing of pressure toward humanitarian activity. The likelihood is the elites will steal it and/or funnel it toward malign activity,” the official said. According to reporting in The Guardian, the United Kingdom is working behind the scenes to persuade the U.S. government to roll back sanctions.

Could the crisis be an opportunity? Writing in Foreign Policy on Tuesday, Robert Malley and Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group argued that Iran’s coronavirus crisis is a diplomatic opportunity for both sides to dial down tensions and show goodwill, while also achieving some of their diplomatic objectives.

What We’re Following Today

ECB announces stimulus. The European Central Bank announced Wednesday night that it will begin an economic stimulus program worth €750 billion ($815 billion). It includes a temporary asset purchase program to ease the economic disruption of the coronavirus outbreak and should last until the end of 2020. The ECB intends to buy both public and private securities.

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary action,” ECB chief Christine Lagarde wrote on Twitter. “There are no limits to our commitment to the euro. We are determined to use the full potential of our tools, within our mandate.”

U.S.-Canada border closes. U.S. President Donald Trump and his counterpart Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have agreed to close the U.S.-Canada border to non-essential travel as both countries manage the spread of the coronavirus. In a joint statement, the two leaders said they would “preserve supply chains and trade, regardless of travel restrictions.”

Italy considers exercise ban as death toll rises. Italy is considering banning outdoor solitary exercise as it struggles under the weight of its coronavirus epidemic, the worst in Europe. Italy is in a de facto lockdown and police have already stopped 1 million residents for breaking the newly enforced restrictions. “I believe that in the coming hours we will have to consider the possibility of a complete ban on outdoor activities,” Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora told the state broadcaster. Italy reported 475 coronavirus-related deaths within the last 24 hours, its largest death toll increase yet.

Brazil’s Senate leader tests positive. Davi Alcolumbre, the head of Brazil’s Senate, has tested positive for the coronavirus, although his office said his symptoms are mild. Alcolumbre is the latest in a string of Brazilian officials to contract the virus. The results of President Jair Bolsonaro’s second coronavirus test have not been reported.

Keep an Eye On

Kosovo government on edge. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti has fired Interior Minister Agim Veliu after a dispute over whether to declare a state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic. Veliu publicly backed Kosovo’s president Hashim Thaci, who has urged the government to make the declaration. A member of a coalition party in Kurti’s government said they would withdraw their support for the prime minister if he did not reinstate Veliu, opening the possibility of a collapse in government less than two months since its formation. Kosovo has 19 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with no recorded deaths.

U.S. envoy urges Afghan prisoner release. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, has called for prisoner releases agreed under the February 29 Taliban peace deal to begin “as soon as possible,” citing the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic. As part of the agreement, 5,000 Taliban prisoners were to be released before the group and the Afghan government were to continue peace talks. President Ashraf Ghani initially announced he would release the prisoners in stages, a move the Taliban condemned.

Waziristan clash. Four members of Pakistan’s security forces were killed in a raid on a Pakistani militant group in Waziristan, according to a statement from Pakistani officials. Seven militants were also killed in the raid, which recovered caches of bombs and ammunition.

Life under lockdown. Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson reports from his home in Madrid, and gives a preview of what life in a locked down country can be like—including run-ins with police while taking out the trash. Also in FP, Laurie Garrett says it’s time to prepare for a total lockdown in the United States.

Odds and Ends

As world leaders compare the battle against coronavirus to World War II, a wartime echo is reverberating in the United Kingdom: rationing. Major grocery stores are restricting purchases in bulk, allowing customers to buy only three of each item. The online delivery service Ocado temporarily shut down its website due to overwhelming demand. Supermarkets are also closing salad bars and deli counters to cut down on waste. Despite the wave of panic buying, British companies say that food supply chains are functioning as normal.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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