The coronavirus pandemic is shaking up the world, but not US foreign policy. As billions hunker down to halt the spread of the virus, President Donald Trump has only ramped up sanctions and other pressure against frequent targets such as Iran and Venezuela.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has led calls for an "immediate global ceasefire" to refocus on fighting COVID-19 and on Friday appealed for the "waiving of sanctions that can undermine countries' capacity to respond to the pandemic."
The appeals have fallen on deaf ears in Washington. The Trump administration has kept sweeping sanctions on Iran, one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic, and in recent weeks has blacklisted more Iranians including over the clerical regime's heavy involvement in neighboring Iraq.
On Venezuela, which like Iran has appealed for IMF help to cope with the health crisis, the Justice Department on Thursday unveiled criminal charges on drug-trafficking against President Nicolas Maduro, with a $15 million reward for his arrest.
The indictment treated the leftist leader like a common criminal as Washington steps up its more than one-year campaign to oust Maduro, who presides over a crumbling economy. The Trump administration, which has faced criticism at home for its handling of the crisis, has also launched a rhetorical campaign over the pandemic.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused China of responsibility for spreading the "Wuhan virus" by not stopping it quickly when it first emerged in the metropolis late last year. He has also sharply criticized the coronavirus response of Iran, which kept flights going to China, its vital economic partner in the face of US sanctions.
Pompeo, in a recent interview, said Iran would use any economic relief to pursue nuclear weapons and back Iraqi Shiite militias who have increasingly fought a proxy war with US forces. "You see the way... the regime is treating their people in this time of enormous crisis. You see the way that they continue to spend money," Pompeo told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Many experts agree that Iran, among other countries, made crucial missteps in trying to stem the coronavirus.
But some voiced exasperation that the administration would seek to distract or even topple regimes as a deadly illness infects the globe.
"It's almost like a bad joke. What's worse than a pandemic appearing in a country where there is no government? That is really the last thing that you want," said Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University and fellow at the Quincy Institute, a Washington think tank that advocates military restraint.
"We need to rethink our understanding of US national security. It seems particularly absurd for the United States to invest so heavily in remaking foreign countries at a time when our own nurses in New York City are literally wearing trash bags," he said. Abrahms said Pompeo and other hawkish US officials were stuck in a mindset of trying to remove adversarial regimes rather than seeing a greater US interest in protecting public health.
"Even countries that we do not like live in the same universe. And we need to work with them to address mutual problems," he said. Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned the action against Maduro, saying that while his "depravity is undisputed," the charges alone "will not restore democracy in Venezuela nor address the unprecedented humanitarian crisis."
Pompeo quickly points out that the United States has not restricted sales of medicine and other humanitarian goods to Iran -- and that the United States has offered, in general terms, to help. But many Iranians say humanitarian imports have effectively been blocked as few foreign banks are willing to deal with Iran due to US sanctions, leading to shortages of vital supplies such as masks. Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, which studies peaceful solutions to global problems, said the Trump administration likely believes that any aid would only throw a lifeline to a regime it sees on the brink of falling.
"US indifference to the suffering of an entire nation is bound to have long-term consequences, giving credence to arguments of the Iranian hardliners that Washington's enmity is not just aimed at the leadership," Vaez said. But Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which promotes a hawkish line on Iran, said that blaming US sanctions for the health crisis "misses the forest for the trees." He said the United States should promote humanitarian exports to help ordinary people but ensure that no money goes to the government. "The only reason American sanctions on Iran persist, and in fact have grown in scale and scope, is because Iranian bad behavior has grown, even during the coronavirus pandemic," he said.