In shift, Iran says US sanctions 'failed to hamper' virus fight

After European states evade sanctions and US official says Washington may consider easing them, Iranian president Rouhani says the US has missed its chance to "apologise" to Iranians.

TEHRAN - Iran's president said on Wednesday that the United States had lost a historic opportunity to lift sanctions on his country over the coronavirus, while adding that the penalties had not hampered Tehran's fight against the infection.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the possibility that Washington might consider easing sanctions on Iran and other nations to help fight the coronavirus, but gave no concrete sign it plans to do so.

Asked if there might come a point at which Washington might reevaluate its stance on easing sanctions, Pompeo told reporters: "We evaluate all of our policies constantly, so the answer is - would we ever rethink? - Of course."

Asked about such relief on March 20, Pompeo simply said US sanctions do not apply to medical and other humanitarian goods.

Pompeo's comments came after the US announced it would offer the leftist leadership of Venezuela, another country under US sanctions, a deal to remove the sanctions by accepting a transitional government that excludes US ally Juan Guaido, amid fears that the coronavirus could spread further both within and outside Venezuela.

But Iran's president appeared to rubbish the suggestion from Pompeo despite repeated denunciations by Tehran of Washington's "maximum pressure" policy towards Iran, which it previously claimed had severely hindered efforts to battle the coronavirus outbreak.

Rouhani said that the US sanctions had "failed to hamper" its efforts to contain the spread of the virus, instead casting the issue as Washington's failure to "apologise" to the "Iranian nation".

"The United States lost the best opportunity to lift sanctions," Hassan Rouhani said in a televised cabinet meeting. "It was a great opportunity for Americans to apologise... and to lift the unjust and unfair sanctions on Iran."

The coronavirus has killed 2,898 people and infected a recorded 44,606 in Iran, making it the worst-hit country in the Middle East and prompting China and the United Nations to urge the United States to ease sanctions. Iranian leaders have also come under criticism, with many doubting the accuracy of the figures it provides regarding the extent of the coronavirus spread.

"Americans could have used this opportunity and told the Iranian nation that they are not against them," Rouhani said. "Their hostility (towards Iranians) is obvious."

Friction between Tehran and Washington has increased since 2018, when US President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with six nations and re-imposed sanctions, crippling Iran's economy.

Trump has adopted a "maximum pressure" policy on Iran aimed at persuading Tehran to negotiate a broader deal that further constrains its nuclear programme, limits its missile programme and curbs its use of proxy forces in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

Washington has offered humanitarian assistance to its longtime foe. But Iran's top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has rejected the offer.

Although Iranian authorities have said US sanctions hindered efforts to curb the outbreak, Rouhani said : "The sanctions have failed to hamper our efforts to fight against the coronavirus outbreak."

"We are almost self-sufficient in producing all necessary equipment to fight the coronavirus. We have been much more successful than many other countries in the fight against this disease," Rouhani said.

Iranian officials previously stated that US sanctions were preventing medical supplies from reaching the country and severely damaging Iran's ability to deal with the virus. Those comments were echoed by Iran's allies China and Russia: the three, along with five other countries under US sanctions, sent a letter to the UN this month charging that US sanctions were a hindrance to global efforts to battle the pandemic.

Iran has previously gone as far as to accuse the United States of "medical terror," prompting Pompeo's spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, on Monday to tweet: "Stop lying. ... It's not the sanctions. It's the regime."

Several countries, including the United Arab Emirates, China, Britain, France, Qatar and Turkey, have sent shipments of medical supplies, including gloves and surgical masks, to Iran.

In the first transaction conducted under a trade mechanism set up to barter humanitarian goods and food after Washington's withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Germany said on Tuesday that France, Germany and Britain had exported medical goods to Iran.

Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst at Washington's CSIS think tank, said Pompeo's shift in tone on the issue of sanctions might be a response to the European move.

"There is an Iranian effort to peel off Europe ... Holding open the possibility of reconsidering is an effort to keep Europe on side," he added, though he saw little chance of a US policy shift. "In the current environment, the chances are very low, but the environment keeps changing."

Pompeo has been sharply criticized for the administration's stance on Iran sanctions, but in recent weeks, the United States has repeatedly tightened sanctions on Iran, notably seeking to make it harder for it to export oil.