Photo: Reuters

Iran rejects US offer to help fight coronavirus

One person is dying from the coronavirus every 10 minutes in Iran, according to the Islamic Republic’s Health Ministry, with 50 more becoming infected every hour.

The country has been hit the worst by the disease in the Middle East, with a reported death toll of 1,284 and 18,407 addition confirmed cases.

The United States imposed fresh sanctions on Iran on Tuesday (17 March) — keeping up its economic pressure campaign despite an earlier offer to help Tehran cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking at a news conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Iran to release detained American citizens — and made clear that Washington will maintain maximum pressure to choke off Iran’s oil exports.

The U.S. has been trying to force the Islamic Republic to curb its nuclear, missile and regional activities in an effort that began after President Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal in 2018.

In a blunt message that the spread of the coronavirus will not save Iran from punitive U.S. economic measures that are choking off its oil revenues and isolating its economy, Secretary Pompeo declared that the State Department has blacklisted nine entities based in South Africa, Hong Kong and China; as well as three Iranian individuals, for engaging in “significant transactions” to trade in Iranian petrochemicals. Separately, the Commerce Department said it six people – including five Iranian nuclear scientists – and 18 corporations are being added to the U.S. “Entity List” for aiding Iran’s nuclear program, Pakistan’s unsafeguarded nuclear and missile programs, and Russian military modernization efforts.

Without naming them, the Commerce Department said the move covers one company in Iran, two entities in China, nine in Pakistan, and five in the United Arab Emirates and will constrict the export of certain items to them. The Entity List names foreign parties that are barred from receiving some or all items subject to U.S. export regulations unless the exporter secures a license, according to the department.

The United States insists that the imposition of its sanctions program designed to curb Iran’s nuclear, missile and regional activities will not be eased, while insisting the measures do not inhibit the flow of humanitarian goods to Tehran. “Our policy of maximum pressure on the regime continues,” Brian Hook, the U.S. Special Representative for Iranian Affairs, told reporters. “U.S. sanctions are not preventing aid from getting to Iran.”

Despite Washington’s unyielding stance, Hook also revealed that the White House sent a diplomatic note to Tehran offering help with coronavirus, which “was quickly rejected.”

The U.S. Special Representative for Iranian Affairs placed blame for the extreme coronavirus situation in the Islamic Republic squarely on its Ayatollah regime. Iran “spends billions on terrorism and foreign wars” and that if it spent one tenth of this “on a better health care system,” said Hook, “the Iranian people would have been much better off.”

Secretary Pompeo repeated the U.S. offer to help Iran combat the coronavirus in a greeting he issued yesterday for the Nowruz Persian New Year. Pompeo said he joined President Trump “in wishing a happy, healthy, and prosperous Nowruz to all who celebrate this tradition across the world,” adding “We are saddened to learn of the mounting deaths this virus has caused, particularly in Iran. We are heartened by each recovery and share hopes with the people of Iran and around the world that they can prevent the spread of this virus. To support the recovery from this especially difficult time, our offer still stands to send humanitarian and medical assistance to the people of Iran.”

Nowruz, or “new day” in Persian, is an ancient celebration and the most important date in the calendar, when families gather and exchange gifts. But the coronavirus has overshadowed the celebrations.

In a Nowruz address broadcast on state television today, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised his people for the “dazzling” sacrifices “by medical groups, physicians, nurses, assistants, managers and the staff working in hospitals.

Khamenei appeared to be healthy despite rumors that he had been infected with the virus. Officials close to the Supreme Leader, contacted by Reuters on Wednesday, denied the rumors.

“Last year was a tumultuous year for the Iranian nation,” Khamenei acknowledged, saying “It was a year that began with the floods and that ended with the coronavirus…but we will overcome all hardships with unity.”

Unlike in his traditionally fiery speeches, the anti-U.S. hardliner Khamenei refrained from attacking Iran’s longtime foe in his remarks. He instead maintained that his country has “benefited from America’s sanctions” by making it “self-sufficient in all areas.” One official in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity, remarked that, “Yes. It was a very unique speech by the leader. His language was different, his tone was different, and it was not hostile towards America.”

Fallout over the impact of the coronavirus combined with rising public discontent over economic hardship may ultimately force Tehran to choose a diplomatic track over further confrontation with Washington. In what is perhaps a first sign of this, the Islamic Republic granted a medical furlough on humanitarian grounds to U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, who has been imprisoned in Iran since being arrested in 2018. White was sentenced to serve at least 10 years behind bars on charges of insulting Khamenei and posting anti-establishment remarks on social media under a pseudonym.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the move, saying that White had been “wrongfully detained” and that the Trump administration was working to overcome the conditioned-release requiring White to remain in Iran.

Pompeo also called on the Iranian government to “immediately release on humanitarian grounds Morad Tahbaz, Baquer Namazi, and Siamak Namazi,” and asked that the regime “honor the commitment it made to work with the United States for the return of Robert Levinson.” It is not clear exactly how many Americans Iran may hold, but Washington has already warned Tehran that its clerical rulers will directly be held responsible for any American deaths since the outbreak has infected the Islamic Republic.

Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution think tank said Iran allowing White or other detained U.S. citizens to fly home might appeal to 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, Maloney added, saying this could hurt U.S. security partners across the region.

“Iran is Italy, only on steroids,” she said, alluding to the outbreak in Italy, whose coronavirus death toll on Thursday overtook that of China, where the virus emerged.

Meanwhile, 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 Shi’ite 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 U.S. personnel. “We should be sending medical supplies directly to Iranians through non-governmental organizations and bypass the regime.”

Military sources said a U.S. soldier, an American contractor and a female British British medical technician were killed and at least 12 other people injured on 11 March, when 18 rockets struck the Camp Taji base, 25 miles (40km) north of Baghdad. The U.S. attributed the attack to an Iranian proxy group, most likely the Kataib Hezbollah.

Tension escalated after Iran’s senior Islamic Republican Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. a drone strike in January. A retaliatory Iranian strike on the al-Assad base, which also houses American troops, on 8 January left more than 100 soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

Since that time, however, both sides appear to have made efforts to de-escalate hostilities and there have notably been no major flare-ups.

As far as the coronavirus goes in Iraq, there is a significantly lower mortality rate than in neighboring Iran. There have been 13 deaths and just 192 confirmed cases.

In a statement to TV7, the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve underscored that the Central Command (CENTCOM) and its partners “remain united in a long-term, international mission to create enduring security in Iraq and Northeast Syria to enable stabilization activities and humanitarian assistance.”

As an example of “stabilization support and life after Daesh” (the Islamic State), CENTCOM included a photo of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)– funded AMAR healthcare teams, “working exceptionally hard to ensure that patients remain protected from coronavirus as well as other health threats” with which the population has had to contend. The site of the photograph was identified as Khanke Camp, where the clinic was said to be providing care to more than 15,000 displaced Yazidis.

In related developments, Iraq’s Joint Operation Command spokesman Tahsin Khafaji said U.S. forces have officially handed over command of Qaim military base to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on Thursday (March 19), 2020.

The compound has been used by U.S.-led coalition troops since 2017, for the training and advising of the ISF to combat the Daesh/Islamic State terrorist organization.

Khafaji said ISF soldiers now have the power to control the security of the region following the defeat of ISIS. He added that the U.S. military is soon expected to withdraw from two more Iraqi bases.