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Iran, Syria complain about US sanctions during coronavirus pandemic

Assad and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wearing masks and gloves as they met on April 20 in the Syrian capital, Damascus. (Islamic Republic of Iran Government Information Base/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iran’s foreign minister has held talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as both countries grapple with the coronavirus outbreak.

Photographs posted to the Iranian government’s Twitter account showed Assad and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wearing masks and gloves as they met on April 20 in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The two men used the meeting to criticize the United States for not lifting sanctions imposed on both countries.

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Syria and Iran, its closest ally in the region, are under U.S. sanctions that they both say are affecting their fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

The Trump administration has criticized Tehran for its alleged support of extremist violence in the Middle East, testing of ballistic and nuclear weapons, and support for Assad.

Along with Russia, Tehran has provided crucial military support to Assad during the country’s civil war, which entered its 10th year last month.

More than 400,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the conflict began.

The civil war has devastated Syria’s health system, and aid workers and rights activists have warned the government is incapable of preventing the coronavirus from spreading.

During his meeting with Assad, Zarif said Washington’s “real agenda in not lifting its cruel sanctions on countries fighting this disease has now become clear,” according to a statement from Tehran.

Syria’s presidency quoted the Syrian leader as criticizing the United States for keeping economic sanctions in place on countries like Syria and Iran “despite these exceptional humanitarian conditions.”

Iran’s economy is suffering under intense U.S. sanctions after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Washington has dismissed the idea of lifting sanctions, saying they do not block humanitarian aid and medical equipment from reaching sanctioned countries.

Zarif also met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem in Damascus.

Iran is one of the Middle Eastern countries worst hit by the coronavirus epidemic. More than 5,200 people have died in Iran with more than 83,500 reported cases, according to official figures. But many Iranians and international experts think the government has intentionally underreported the extent of the pandemic in the country.

Syria’s official count is 39 infections and two deaths, all in or around Damascus, though most experts believe the number is far higher.

For weeks, government officials denied any threat, allowing Shi’ite pilgrims from Iran and Iraq to visit shrines near Damascus. Fighters, allied with the Syrian military, traveled back and forth from those countries.

By early March, restrictions began with a partial closure of borders and shrines.