Flags of European Union member states fly in front of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France, April 15, 2014.
Flags of European Union member states fly in front of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France, April 15, 2014.

WASHINGTON - U.S. humanitarian policy toward Iran is under scrutiny as the European Union calls for more details about a new U.S. trade mechanism aimed at shielding exports of food and medicine to Iranians from U.S. sanctions.

Conflicting evidence also has emerged about whether the Trump administration's previous system for facilitating humanitarian trade with Iran has helped or hurt the Iranian people.

In a Tuesday statement emailed to VOA Persian, an EU spokesperson "noted" the Trump administration's Oct. 25 launch of a "new humanitarian mechanism to ensure unprecedented transparency into humanitarian trade with Iran."

"So far, few details have been published and the mechanism is not operational. We will assess it once further details are available," the EU spokesperson said.

Asked by VOA Persian whether any foreign governments or organizations had started using the trade mechanism, a U.S. Treasury Department spokesperson responded Tuesday by declining to comment on "individual interactions with foreign governments and other entities on specific matters."

The U.S. spokesperson said the new trade framework announced Friday "sets out a path whereby (Treasury's) Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) will provide written confirmation to willing participants that their processes comply (with U.S. due diligence rules) on a case-by-case basis."

The Trump administration's announcement of the trade mechanism said any participants would have to undertake "enhanced" due diligence on humanitarian trade "to ensure that funds … are not diverted by the Iranian regime to develop ballistic missiles, support terrorism, or finance other malign activities." It said participants that satisfy those requirements would receive written assurances that their humanitarian trades with Iran do not violate U.S. sanctions.

When asked to respond to critics who predicted the enhanced due diligence requirements would dissuade international companies and financial institutions from using the new mechanism, the Treasury spokesperson said conducting transactions with Iran already was difficult because of the "intentionally opaque nature" of the Iranian economy and Tehran's role as a "leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world." Iran has said it is a victim, rather than a perpetrator, of terrorism.

"This mechanism provides risk mitigation for those who are willing to conduct enhanced due diligence to ensure they are not inadvertently funding terrorism and other malign activities being undertaken by the Iranian regime," the U.S. spokesperson added.

FILE - A member of the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division looks out over Pennsylvania Avenue as he stands in front of a temporary barrier in front of the White House in Washington, Oct. 3, 2014.

In a study published Tuesday, New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch criticized the Trump administration's previous system of exempting humanitarian trade from U.S. sanctions, saying it had "failed to offset the strong reluctance of U.S. and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods."

HRW said that reluctance to trade with Iran meant U.S. sanctions "drastically constrained the ability of the country to finance humanitarian imports, including medicines, causing serious hardships for ordinary Iranians and threatening their right to health."

HRW researcher Tara Sepehri Far tweeted that the study found "no current acute nationwide shortage of medicine and medical equipment" in Iran. But, she wrote that "patients suffering from specialized and rare diseases ... and who are dependent on imported medicine are already feeling the negative effects and the situation could get worse."

In a research note published on Wednesday, U.S. policy institute Foundation for Defense of Democracies said it had found evidence that U.S. sanctions have not disrupted Iranian imports of pharmaceuticals from the European Union, a major medicine supplier to Iran.

FDD said data provided by Eurostat, the EU statistical office based in Luxembourg, show Tehran imported $357 million of pharmaceutical products from EU countries in the first half of 2019, an increase of 2.5% compared with the first six months of 2018.

The Trump administration began significantly tightening sanctions against Iran in November 2018, six months after withdrawing from a 2015 deal in which world powers offered Iran sanctions relief in return for restrictions on its nuclear program. U.S. President Donald Trump said the deal was not tough enough on Iran and vowed to pressure the Islamic Republic into agreeing to a new deal to stop its perceived nuclear weapons ambitions and other malign activities.

Iran has said its nuclear ambitions are for peaceful purposes and has vowed to resist the U.S. sanctions.

This article originated in VOA's Persian service.