WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, joined J Street in a virtual briefing on the impact U.S. sanctions are having on Iran during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, Murphy led a Senate effort in calling on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin to ease economic sanctions against countries where they are hindering the humanitarian response to COVID-19.
“…[W]e believe that this is an opportunity to show the heart of America. To show the values of our nation which is supposed to undergird our foreign policy,” said Murphy. “Remember, there are lots of young people in Iran who are no fans of this regime, who, in fact, reach out for a connection to America. Now they're fed all sorts of propaganda by the Supreme Leader and his allies, but that propaganda is made a whole lot easier because of a U.S. sanctions policy that is coming down like a ton of bricks on the Iranian people, especially at this moment of crisis.”
“We have an opportunity right now to send a message to the Iranian people, to do the right thing from a position of conscience, and to potentially lead towards a reset of relations with Iran—or at least create an opening for a new, more functional dialogue with Iran by helping save the lives of innocent civilians in that country,” Murphy added.
Full transcript of Murphy’s opening remarks is below:
“Great, thank you very much Deborah. Thanks to J Street for having me back. This is the first time that we've convened virtually, but I've been a great supporter of J Street since the group's conception. You’ve been generous enough to host me in small and large groups on a number of occasions. Your livestream today coincides with the end of the homeschooling day, and so, forgive me if at any point, an eight year old
s or an eleven year old runs behind me, but we are packed large in a small house here.
“Listen, I'm grateful for the opportunity to talk a little bit about the letter that I wrote—which was signed by me and other Democratic colleagues to Secretary Pompeo. And grateful also I’ll be able to probably put it in some context.
“Let's just put one thing on the table first when we're beginning a conversation about U.S. policies towards Iran. Our sanctions policy has not worked. It has not worked, it has
is made the situation there worse. When President Obama left office, Iran was party to an agreement that separated them from any prospect of a nuclear weapons program in the short term. When President Obama left office, the Iranians and Iranian proxies were not shooting at American troops inside Iraq. When President Obama left office, in fact, the United States was cooperating with Iranian backed militias inside Iraq to take the fight to ISIS.
“Fast forward to this moment in time, Iran is potentially back on a pathway to a nuclear weapon. Having withdrawn from the JCPOA they are presently, as we speak, either directly or through their proxies in Iraq, shooting at U.S. troops. And we are perpetually on the precipice of a dangerous conventional military engagement with Iran.
“The sanctions have not worked. It has not. The maximum pressure campaign against Iran has not worked. It has not convinced Iran to come to the table on concessions regarding their nuclear program. It has not forced them to come to the table and give up their ballistic missile program. And it has not made the region any safer.
“And so I think that's important pretext for a conversation about the pros and cons of providing some waivers to the Trump sanctions for medical supplies and humanitarian relief to reach Iran. Iran is still in the midst of an epidemic that they, right now, do not have the ability to confront. We have problems in the United States with medical equipment and PPE, and we don't have global economic sanctions tightening our medical economy. Iran is simply unable, right now, to get what they need in order to meet the medical moment. And we believe, those who signed the letter, that the United States first and foremost just has a moral obligation to make sure that our foreign policy doesn't result in the knowing death of innocent people. And right now, our sanctions policy, because it is making it very hard, if not impossible for medical supplies to reach Iran is, in part, resulting in the death of individuals in that country who could be saved if our policy was different.
“But second, we believe that this is an opportunity to show the heart of America, to show the values of our nation which is supposed to undergird our foreign policy. Remember, there are lots of young people in Iran who are no fans of this regime, who, in fact, reach out for a connection to America. Now they're fed all sorts of propaganda by the Supreme Leader and his allies, but that propaganda is made a whole lot easier because of a U.S. sanctions policy that is coming down like a ton of bricks on the Iranian people, especially at this moment of crisis.
“And so what we recommended is that the administration take a couple steps. We're trying to be realistic here. We're not suggesting that the administration get rid of every single sanction that they have imposed or, frankly, that the Obama administration had imposed on Iran. What we're asking them to do is to: a) create a clear general license that would allow for humanitarian relief organizations to get those relief supplies into Iran without delay. Right now, the exception the Trump administration talked about is an incredibly narrow one. It's an exception that, for instance, doesn't count personal protective equipment as supplies exempt from U.S. sanctions. And so, we need to create a slightly broader aperture for medical equipment to get in from outside. It’s up to the U.S. to create that kind of license.
“Second, we need to create a financing mechanism for Iran and Iranian medical providers to be able to pay for those supplies. Some of it will be straight humanitarian supplies, but some of the problem is, because the banks won't do any business with Iran for anything, they're not willing to help finance health care entities in Iran that want to bring in medical supplies. We've got to temporarily solve that problem.
“And the benefit here is not just that we will have a chance at convincing the Iranian people that the things that are being fed by the regime are not true about America, but it also is potentially an opportunity to thaw relations between the United States and Iran at a moment where we are literally, on a day to day basis, ratcheting up the prospect for war. Gone unnoticed because, rightly so, Americans focus has been laser like on the crisis in our country. We have had several incidences, almost on a daily or nearly daily basis, of Iranian proxies in Iraq firing rockets and missiles at U.S. bases and U.S. forces. In fact, there have been additional U.S. troops that had been killed over the course of the last two months. And so we are still at a crisis moment with respect to our engagement with the Iranians. And this is an opportunity for us to have constructive engagement that may allow us to have dialogue to settle these other differences.
“And so, this to me is the right moral play, but it's the right national security play as well. And listen, this, I think this fits into a broader conversation about how America has to engage with the world going forward. Because what we need to understand is that our reputation has been ruined over the last three years. And our reputation has been ruined in part because people around the globe see a growing divide between American rhetoric about the things we stand for—and then how we actually practice foreign policy in the world. We claim that democracy is a priority, but then the Trump administration runs around the world and cozies up to dictators and chastises and attacks our democratic allies. We claim that America is the protector of global human rights, but we have largely stood down in our defense of human rights, going increasingly silent in the face of crackdowns in Turkey or Hungary or the Philippines.
“And so, when we aren't willing to extend a hand to a country like Iran, or Venezuela for that matter, during their time of need, it once again convinces people that the United States just really isn't a country, an entity of government, that acts in the same way that it talks. And, you know what, 30 years ago, we could get away with some of that hypocrisy because you really only had two choices: you could either align yourself with the United States or you could align yourself with the Soviet Union. That's not the case today. There are lots of suitors for the affection of communities and nations attention around the world. And if the luster comes off permanently from the United States, then there are lots of other actors who are willing to pick up those political and economic relationships when the United States let them fall by the wayside.
“And then lastly, let me say this, there's also just another realpolitik reason to do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus in Iran. Ultimately, there is no way to protect ourselves from the coronavirus today or a resurgence in the fall if we don't mount a global response. And we have not. We have not. We have not coordinated our actions with our allies in Europe. We announced the travel ban from Europe without even alerting the EU beforehand. And we clearly are not coordinating our response with our adversaries. We had withdrawn most of our personnel from China prior to that outbreak happening when we shut down the PREDICT program, and now we are engaged in sanctions policy in Iran, one of the countries that has had the largest scale outbreaks.
“And so if all we care about is stopping the virus from permanently ruining our nation's public health infrastructure, our economy and leading to thousands of deaths. Then, frankly, we should be vigilant about cooperating on a public health basis with any country—whether they are a historical ally or adversary of the United States. And we are not doing that today.
“One of the conversations—and I'll leave you with this—that we have to begin right now, is how we rebuild a permanent public health infrastructure around the world, that is available to work with both friend and foe as a mechanism to prevent, in the future, a pathogen from becoming a threat to the United States as this virus has become. Globally, we spend around $12 billion a year on public health. Half of that is PEPFAR. So for non-AIDS related public health programming, we spent $6 billion a year. Annually, the Department of Defense spends now $730 billion dollars a year. Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't stand up defenses against conventional military attacks. Certainly, Iran and North Korea and China and Russia would probe our weaknesses if we dramatically reduced our ability to prevent a conventional attack against the United States. But we are spending today 100 times as much money on conventional military defense, that's aircraft carriers and fighter jets, tanks and planes, as we are on public health defenses. Ask Americans today, whether a virus is 100 times less dangerous to the United States than an invasion from a foreign military. The answer is staring us in the face. And so we've got a big project that needs to happen moving forward to rebuild our non-military engagement with the world, public health engagement at the top of that list.
“We have an opportunity right now to send a message to the Iranian people, to do the right thing from a position of conscience, and to potentially lead towards a reset of relations with Iran—or at least create an opening for a new, more functional dialogue with Iran by helping them save the lives of innocent civilians in that country.
“So, I'm really appreciative for everything that J Street has done to lead on this effort, to help those of us who believe in the moral national security moment available to us with respect to the U.S.-Iran relationship. I may not be able to hang around until the end of this call because I've got a couple other calls lined up, but I'm grateful for our partnership and eager to hear what comes from this meeting. Thanks for letting me join.”
Click Here to View Murphy’s Remarks During a J Street Virtual Briefing