“The actual decision they take will depend, I suspect, on the wider diplomatic relationship between Iran and the UK, and particularly co-operation over helping to deal with coronavirus and the humanitarian crisis enveloping Iran. France and the US have, if anything, had more success than the UK in the past few weeks with their prisoners – so I think there is movement far beyond just Nazanin’s case.”
Another British dual citizen, Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was arrested in 2018 and is held in prison in Iran on charges of espionage after a secret trial. It is believed her 10-year sentence has precluded her from being among prisoners released during the coronavirus outbreak.
Earlier this month, Iran released Roland Marchal, a French researcher who was arrested in 2019 accused of plotting against national security.
Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations who is often involved in negotiations with hostile regimes, said at the weekend the Iranians were “contemplating” a request to allow Michael White, a US prisoner who has come down with coronavirus symptoms, to come home.
Iran launched a diplomatic blitz to urge Western governments, including the UK, to violate unilateral US sanctions if necessary as the country’s coronavirus epidemic exploded in early March. Personal protection gear like masks and aprons are not necessarily covered by the exceptions for medical equipment in US sanctions, making international banks and logistics companies wary of facilitating orders.
The economic impacts, including a dramatic erosion of many Iranians’ personal savings under the sanctions regime, has also left the country vulnerable to the inevitable shocks associated with quarantine.
“The result is that Iran is facing extreme trade offs between optimal public health results and steps to shore up the economy,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of Bourse and Bazaar, a think tank focused on Iran’s economy.
President Hassan Rouhani’s government has been trying to get France, Britain and Germany to circumvent US sanctions since Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and US officials have accused Tehran of exploiting the pandemic for political gain.
“US sanctions exempt medicine and all humanitarian assistance. We have repeatedly offered medical assistance to the Iranian people, which the regime has rejected,” Brian Hook, special representative for Iran and senior policy adviser to the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, told London’s Telegraph.
“The regime routinely blames America for problems of its own making and this crisis is no different. And does anyone really believe that this regime, which four months ago murdered 1500 innocent Iranians, would spend sanctions relief on its own people and not on sectarian warfare? Let’s not be naive here.”
The appeal to lift sanctions has been undermined by mixed messages from Tehran, however.
Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, on March 22 publicly rejected an American offer of medical aid, saying it was possibly a Trojan horse “to spread the virus more”.
He also alleged, without offering any evidence, that the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means”.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office said: “The UK – and our E3 partners France and Germany – recently offered Iran a comprehensive package of both material and financial support worth €5 million [$9 million] to combat the rapid spread of coronavirus”.
Iran’s Health Ministry spokesman reported 123 new deaths in the 24 hours to Sunday, bringing the death toll to 2640 since it reported its first case in mid-February.
There were also 2901 new confirmed cases, increasing the total number to 38,309, although the actual number has appeared to be far higher.
Rouhani has faced mounting criticism for failing to impose the quarantine measures already adopted in east Asia and Europe.
He finally declared a lockdown with non-essential shops closed and a ban on non-essential intercity travel last week, days after scientists at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology released computer modelling that predicted as many as 3.5 million people could die if Iranians failed to observe strict social distancing and other preventive measures.
The Telegraph, London