US rebuffs Europeans over ensuring Iran sanctions exempt food and medicine

British, French and German ambassadors jointly tried to persuade US to outline how humanitarian supplies could be guaranteed.

European governments have so far failed to persuade the Trump administration to guarantee Iranian imports of basic foods and medicine after the imposition of blanket sanctions next week, according to diplomats familiar with the negotiations.

The sanctions – on oil, shipping and banking, lifted after Iran agreed to strict curbs on its nuclear programme in 2015 – are to be reimposed on Monday six months after Donald Trump walked out of the nuclear deal, with more than 700 new banks, companies, individuals and vessels being added to existing blacklists.

Humanitarian supplies are officially exempted from sanctions, but in the past risk-averse foreign banks and companies have avoided all transactions with Iran for fear of being penalised, leading to severe shortages of life-saving medicines and food staples in the years preceding the 2015 agreement.

“There’s no doubt that the lives of thousands of patients will be at risk,” Ahmad Ghavideh, of Iran’s haemophilia society told the Guardian by phone from Tehran.

“Any delay in supply of medicine, particularly in the sector I work in, will have catastrophic consequences,” said the head of the NGO. “My worry is not for today, but in six months’ time when our supply runs out. They claim that the imports of medicines are exempted from sanctions but in practice, because of banking restrictions, we don’t have access to medicine or ingredients needed to make them internally.”

The UK, French and German ambassadors to the US – the three countries are co-signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal – made joint visits to the treasury and state departments in September in an effort to persuade the administration to produce a “white list”. This would give clear guidelines about what channels European banks and companies should follow to conduct legitimate transactions with Iran without fear of future penalties.

“We are expecting our American friends to make some gestures on humanitarian goods,” Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to Washington said this week. “Of course humanitarian goods are not sanctioned. But the fact is the banks are so terrified of sanctions that they don’t want to do anything with Iran. It means that in a few months, there is a strong risk that there will be shortage of medicine in Iran if we don’t do something positive.”

Araud said it was not enough to exempt humanitarian goods from the list of sanctions. “You really need to be more positive and to say how to do it. If you don’t say how to do it, the banks will not do it. So we are waiting for a technical answer,” the ambassador said at the Hudson Institute thinktank.

Asked about the administration’s response, Araud said: “As for humanitarian issues we have not actually received an answer.”

“The whole idea of a white list is frowned on by the administration,” another European diplomat said.

On Friday, the state department’s special envoy on Iran, Brian Hook, who met the European ambassadors in September, appeared to rule out making special provisions for humanitarian goods, beyond formally exempting them from sanctions.

“The burden is not on the United States to identify the safe channels,” Hook told reporters. “ We have done our part to permit the sale of humanitarian goods to Iran. That is our part. That is our role. Iran has a role to make these transactions possible. Banks do not have confidence in Iran’s banking system … That’s Iran’s problem; it is not our problem.”

The three European parties to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), strongly oppose the Trump administration’s decision to violate it and are seeking to insulate European companies doing business with Iran from US sanctions by the creation of a “special purpose vehicle” that would provide a channel for trade in euros.

The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, issued a joint statement with the British, French and German foreign ministers on Friday saying they “deeply regret” the reimposition of US sanctions and would continue working on ways of keeping legitimate trade with Iran going.

“Our collective resolve to complete this work is unwavering,” the statement added.

Briefing journalists about the coming sanctions, the US treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said he did not think the European effort to bypass US sanctions would work.

“I have no expectation that there will be any transactions that are significant that go through a special purpose vehicle based upon what I’ve seen,” Mnuchin said. “But if there are transactions that have the intent of evading our sanctions, we will aggressively pursue our remedies.”

European diplomats say there is a debate going on within the administration on the issue of humanitarian supplies, with some officials in the state department warning that the US risked being blamed for Iranian civilian deaths if more is not done to guarantee deliveries of medicines and basic necessities.

They said the hardest line came from the White House, which relished the pressure it was putting on Iran. On Friday, Trump tweeted a photograph of himself in the style of an advertisement for the Game of Thrones fantasy TV series, with the tagline: “Sanctions Are Coming, November 5”.

Although the administration is not officially pursuing regime change in Iran, one European diplomat said that is ultimately the aim of the national security adviser, John Bolton.

“Bolton believes the regime will collapse,” the diplomat said. “So the discussion we try to have with this administration is what happens after, and it has never led anywhere so far.”

Trump explored the possibility of holding a secret meeting with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, at the UN general assembly in 2017, but Rouhani rebuffed the proposal. The US president is said to be no longer interested in talks, believing that economic isolation will force Tehran into concessions without the need for negotiations.

“First [US officials] say it is too early, and the Iranians have to suffer,” the European diplomat said of administration policy. “They have to feel the full brunt of sanctions and we’ll see.”

Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “The administration has told the Europeans: we are not going to go the extra mile in reassuring European companies on this front.

“I have spoken to a number of European pharmaceutical companies and they say their banks have flagged they are going to struggle to deal with any payments from Iran,” Geranmayeh added. “This is not consistent with the Trump administration’s declared policy that sanctions are not against the Iranian people.”

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