WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump said Sunday that he had offered Iran assistance in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the Islamic Republic and claimed the lives of over 13,000 people worldwide.
Trump told reporters he had sent an official letter to Iranian leaders offering help, as well as a similar letter to the leader of North Korea and to “many other countries.”
With more than 1,600 dead and over 12,000 currently active cases, Iran is suffering the worst outbreak in the Middle East.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected the offer in a televised speech on Sunday, saying that the U.S. has been accused of engineering the virus and that it could supply medications “that spread the virus or cause it to remain permanently.”
Despite Trump’s statement, Washington has signaled in recent days that Iran's crisis would not change the administration’s policy of economic pressure.
Last week, the administration placed new sanctions on several companies that conducted business with Iran, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin declared that “the Trump administration will continue to target those who support the Iranian regime.” Mnuchin added that further steps were being considered in Washington.
Other agencies, including the State and Commerce Departments, also took new steps to increase the pressure on Iran last week.
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On Sunday, the State Department released a statement condemning France for a prisoner swap with Iran. A day earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran, along with Russia and China, of spreading “misinformation” about the coronavirus. Pompeo stopped short, however, of directly blaming Iran for a recent rocket attack on U.S. military forces in Iraq that killed two American soldiers.
The attack has caused disagreement inside the administration between two groups of senior Trump advisers advocating two different kinds of response. The New York Times reported on Saturday that Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien are urging Trump to strike Iran in response, while Defense Secretary Mark Esper and military leaders have cautioned that there was no concrete proof linking Iran to the attack.
Senator Bernie Sanders, running in a Democratic presidential primary in which candidates have been taken off the campaign trail over the virus, has been the most prominent politician to criticize the continuation of Trump’s pressure campaign during the crisis. “Iran is facing a catastrophic toll from the coronavirus pandemic,” Sanders said last week. “U.S. sanctions should not be contributing to this humanitarian disaster. As a caring nation, we must lift any sanctions hurting Iran’s ability to address this crisis, including financial sanctions.” The Republican Jewish Coalition accused Sanders and other Democratic lawmakers who have called to lift or halt the sanctions of “trying to take advantage of coronavirus to lift sanctions with no strings attached.”
The Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran has been in place for almost two years, since Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018. Iran has renewed and accelerated its nuclear program in response, leading to further pressure from the American side.
In 2018, Pompeo listed 12 American demands from Iran, including an end to the country’s nuclear program and its support for proxy militias across the Middle East. Iran has rejected those conditions and has insisted that American sanctions should be lifted before any direct negotiations between the two countries begins. Trump has expressed strong interest in negotiations with Iran in the past, but has not spoken publicly on the matter for several months.
Iran has blamed sanctions imposed by the Trump administration for the mounting death toll from the highly contagious disease, with President Hassan Rohani saying the response to the crisis was being “severely hampered” by the sanctions.