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In move slammed by critics, US seeks data on humanitarian exports to Iran

Experts say measure looks like aimed at gathering intelligence and could increase burden for humanitarian trade, amid accounts of Iranians going without vital medicine

Iranians shop in a supermarket in north Tehran, Iran, April 29, 2015. Iran has removed the country's wealthiest citizens off a list of people receiving monthly handouts in a small step toward easing the burden on the budget and freeing up more government funds. (Photo credit: Vahid Salemi/AP)
Iranians shop in a supermarket in north Tehran, Iran, April 29, 2015. Iran has removed the country's wealthiest citizens off a list of people receiving monthly handouts in a small step toward easing the burden on the budget and freeing up more government funds. (Photo credit: Vahid Salemi/AP)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States on Friday asked foreign governments to submit detailed reports on humanitarian exports to Iran, a step observers said could have a chilling effect and cast a pall over European efforts to allow trade.

US President Donald Trump’s administration, which has cast Tehran’s clerical regime as enemy number one, announced a new “humanitarian mechanism” which it said would help the Iranian people by facilitating “legitimate” trade.

As it announced the initiative, the Treasury Department also said it was blacklisting Iran on charges of money laundering under the 2001 Patriot Act, effectively forbidding all US transactions with Iranian banks.

The Trump administration has imposed sweeping sanctions on Tehran and officially makes exceptions for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods, but most companies are unwilling to do any trade with Iran for fear of repercussions in the world’s largest economy.

US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, October 24, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

US officials said the new mechanism will allow foreign governments and banks to reduce their risks by showing their transactions to Washington, which would certify they are in compliance with sanctions.

“A new humanitarian channel will make it easier for foreign governments, financial institutions and private companies to engage in legitimate humanitarian trade on behalf of the Iranian people while reducing the risk that money ends up in the wrong hands,” Brian Hook, the State Department point man on Iran, said in a statement.

US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin arrives in the briefing room of the White House in Washington on Octopber 11, 2019. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the Trump administration “remains committed to the unfettered flow of humanitarian aid to the Iranian people.”

To seek certification, each institution will need to submit “substantial and unprecedented” information on a monthly basis, including all invoices and details on their customers — including whether they appeared on any US, EU or UN blacklists in the previous five years.

Brian O’Toole, a senior Treasury Department adviser dealing with sanctions under former president Barack Obama, said the measure looked like it was aimed more at gathering intelligence than helping ordinary Iranians and expected many foreign banks would be unable to provide the level of detail required.

“I think this is going to have a chilling effect. It will have the exact opposite effect of what they’re claiming it will,” said O’Toole, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.

‘Nothing more than farce’

The National Iranian American Council said the latest actions would increase the burden for humanitarian trade, amid accounts of Iranians who have gone without vital medicine or medical products.

“The Trump administration has sounded the death knell for humanitarian trade with Iran,” the Iranian American group said in a statement.

“Let’s be clear: There is unlikely to be a single banker in the world that will accept these conditions and participate in the trade,” it said.

“The Trump administration is surely aware of this fact, and its humanitarian channel should be viewed as nothing more than farce.”

In this file photo from April 3, 2007, an Iranian flag flutters outside the building housing the reactor of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in the Iranian port town of Bushehr. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP)

O’Toole, the former Treasury adviser, said that the measure also looked like it was aimed at countering INSTEX, a channel set up by European powers to skirt unilateral US sanctions.

“This is clearly saying — okay, we told you INSTEX is bad, this is what you should use, never mind the invasion of US government sovereignty on you,” he said.

European powers have been seeking to salvage a multinational 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, from which Trump withdrew last year.

Through INSTEX, European businesses are supposed to be insulated from US sanctions, although in reality few companies are willing to take the risk.

The Trump administration has tried to stop all oil sales by Iran and strangle its economy in a bid to reduce the clerical regime’s support for proxies in the Middle East that fight US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel.

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