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Pompeo Still Holds A Tough Stance Toward Iran, North Korea, Venezuela During Epidemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.N. secretary-general has been calling on countries to work together to fight the coronavirus and to ease economic sanctions that are getting in the way of a global response. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though, has kept up a tough line on Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. And critics say he is ceding U.S. leadership on the pandemic response, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Washington Post opinion writer Jackson Diehl blasted Pompeo for his handling of the pandemic, accusing him of engaging in a pointless war of words with Iran and being petty for calling the coronavirus the Wuhan virus. Today Pompeo didn't use that language at a news conference. He seemed to be pushing back at the criticism, pointing out that the U.S. remains the largest donor to U.N. agencies dealing with the pandemic. And he said U.S. sanctions don't affect the trade in medical and humanitarian supplies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: We've worked to try and get assistance into North Korea. We've made offers of assistance to Iran. You'll recall when we first began, we worked diligently in Venezuela to get humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people as well.

KELEMEN: Today he offered to lift sanctions on Venezuela but only if President Nicolas Maduro agrees to cede power to a transitional government. As for North Korea and Iran, Pompeo accuses them of continuing to build bombs and missiles rather than helping their people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POMPEO: We care more often about the people in those countries than their own leaders do. That's sad. That's a reflection of those regimes, too often. It's the reason, in fact, that we're working to help those people raise up in their countries; so that they can get a better outcome for themselves.

KELEMEN: Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy was among those who wrote to Pompeo recently, urging him to adjust all U.S. sanctions. He argues that America's national security and its standing in the world suffer when sanctions result in innocent people dying.

CHRIS MURPHY: From a moral standpoint, first and foremost, I think it's an imperative for us to adjust our sanctions. I hope the administration listens.

KELEMEN: Murphy told the World Affairs Council of Connecticut today that the U.S. should be leading the global response to the coronavirus and preparing for future health crises. Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says that's what the Bush and Obama administrations did to fight AIDS and Ebola. Miller says these days, there's a, quote, "Grand Canyon-sized gap" in U.S. leadership.

AARON DAVID MILLER: It would seem to me, having worked for a half a dozen secretaries of state, that none of them and, certainly, none of their predecessors would have responded to this in a way that appears to be as leaderless and as risk-averse as the Trump administration.

KELEMEN: Speaking via Skype, Miller argues that Secretary Pompeo should be out in front, coordinating with partners rather than blaming China for the spread of the virus here or trying to squeeze the Iranian regime.

MILLER: It's evident to me that you have a secretary of state who is overly partisan, overideological (ph), overly politicized and taking cues from the America-first president that he's serving.

KELEMEN: Americans were on Pompeo's mind today. He touted his department's unprecedented effort to bring home U.S. citizens who were stranded overseas. U.S. diplomats have helped more than 25,000 make it home so far as countries close borders, cancel flights and impose quarantines.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF VITAMIN C'S "GRADUATION (FRIENDS FOREVER)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.