Opinion | Iran’s Covid-19 Death Toll Is Rising. Show Mercy, Mr. Trump.

In 2003, when an earthquake killed thousands in the Iranian city of Bam, President George W. Bush set aside years of animosity and sent an airlift of rescuers and medical supplies. He also temporarily eased some restrictions on sending money and goods to the country. “American people care and we’ve got great compassion for human suffering,” Mr. Bush told CNN in the aftermath of the quake. “It’s right to take care of people when they hurt.”

This fall, as the Covid-19 death toll continues to climb in Iran — the hardest-hit country in the Middle East — the Trump administration has shown little mercy. The U.S. government has voiced its opposition to Iran’s request, still unfulfilled, for a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to help combat the coronavirus pandemic. As Iran surpasses half a million cases and more than 27,000 deaths, the administration is adding new sanctions on a country that was already struggling to buy essential medicines.

Last week, the Trump administration sanctioned 18 Iranian banks, which appear to have been the last financial institutions with international ties left untouched by Treasury Department sanctions. The announcement was the latest move in an effort to hermetically seal the Iranian economy off from the rest of the world. Under previous administrations, sanctions against Iranian banks were accompanied by claims that they had helped facilitate terrorism or the development of nuclear weapons.

Under the Trump administration, being Iranian is crime enough. The list of new financial pariahs includes Bank Maskan, which specializes in mortgages, and Bank Keshavarzi Iran, which lends to farmers. This sweepingly broad application of sanctions amounts to collective punishment for tens of millions of innocent Iranians who are already suffering under a brutally repressive regime.

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, calls the American “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran “sadism masquerading as foreign policy.” In the past, sanctions on Iranian banks were part of a broader strategy to get Iran to agree to limits on its nuclear program, undertaken with the support of American allies in Europe, as well as Russia and China. But the Trump administration walked away from the deal those sanctions produced. Ever since, the United States has been virtually alone on the United Nations Security Council in trying to ratchet up pressure on Iran. The unilateral and extraterritorial nature of the sanctions — which threaten to cut off not only Iran but also any company in the world that does business with Iran — irks America’s closest allies.

The new sanctions against these 18 banks are particularly cruel during a pandemic. Trump administration officials insist the sanctions, which will take effect in December, don’t apply to food and medicine. They also say they have taken pains to provide waivers to companies that want to sell needed supplies to the country. But the process of getting waivers approved is too cumbersome and time-consuming to meet health needs during a pandemic. Even if companies get waivers to sell needed medical supplies to Iran, Iran would still struggle to pay for them. The country lacks hard currency because the Trump administration has tried to stop other countries from buying Iranian products, especially oil, and because American banking sanctions make it difficult for Iran to touch the export revenue it earns.

There is little doubt that this policy has crippled Iran’s economy and impoverished its people with runaway inflation. But it has not achieved the ultimate goal of forcing the Iranian government to capitulate to Washington. To the contrary, it has strengthened hard-liners in Iran. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps controls what little hard currency exists in the country. Instead of incentivizing Iran to be a more responsible and transparent actor, this blanket of sanctions forces more of Iran’s economy into the arms of money launderers, shadowy criminal enterprises and China. It is a policy that brings diminishing returns over time. The more the United States throws its weight around, the more appetite there will be around the world for establishing alternative financial mechanisms that will ultimately deprive Washington of its global clout. American officials would be wiser to stop piling sanctions on Iran during this pandemic.

Iranian officials, too, would be wise to show mercy to the large number of political prisoners who are being held on trumped up charges and who are at risk of contracting the coronavirus. The Iranian government announced the temporary release of more than 85,000 prisoners since the pandemic began, but few political prisoners have been set free. That could change. Last week, Iranian officials took the positive step of releasing Narges Mohammadi, a prominent human rights defender and anti-death penalty campaigner who has been in prison since 2015. Ms. Mohammadi, who worked as a spokeswoman for the Defenders of Human Rights Center, a group banned in Iran, reportedly had her 10-year prison sentence commuted because of health concerns.

Many more political prisoners in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison remain incarcerated and at risk. Their plight has been highlighted by the recent hunger strike of the Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who refused food for nearly a month to demand the compassionate release of scores of her fellow human rights advocates and political dissidents. Ms. Sotoudeh, who is guilty of nothing more than defending a group of women who took off their head scarves in public to protest the law mandating head coverings, was sentenced to what would add up to a 38-year prison term.

Although Ms. Sotoudeh ended her hunger strike because of her weakening condition and a heart problem, her life is still very much in danger. Her condition is said to be rapidly deteriorating. After a brief stay in a hospital, where she did not receive the required medical attention, she was returned to prison, where at least six guards have been identified as having the coronavirus, according to an email from Ms. Sotoudeh’s husband.

Because of her inspiring struggle to preserve the rule of law in Iran, ordinary people around the world are following the news to hear her fate. A new movie, “Nasrin,” about her fight for women’s rights in Iran will ensure that she will not be forgotten.

Ms. Sotoudeh must be given medical attention and compassionate release. Letting her and other political prisoners out would show the world that Iran’s leaders are capable of mercy during a pandemic, and that Iran deserves mercy as well.

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