There are ways to do just that, which previous administrations took advantage of to address the humanitarian catastrophe. The Trump team, meanwhile, claims there are no limitations on the importation of medical supplies to Iran. But recent reports from Iran tell a very different story.
Iran has become self-sufficient in producing many pharmaceutical drugs — so much so that it is now a leading producer of many generics. But it can’t domestically produce everything it needs to fight all diseases, including certain cancers, multiple sclerosis and kidney failure.
More complex preparations, especially ones that require radioactive isotopes used in radiation therapy to treat certain forms of cancer, cannot be made without importing materials.
The regime in Tehran is likely all too willing to let its people suffer and to exploit the opportunities that result; that’s one of the justifications for our sanctions in the first place. But the United States should not fall into this trap. The Iranian government’s lack of concern for its own citizens should never prevent us from doing the right thing.
Trump’s Iran advisers appear uninterested in modifying its sanctions policy, claiming it does not want funds to reach what they claim is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
In 2012, when I was based in Iran, I saw the devastating effects that sanctions had on Iranians’ ability to access medicine firsthand.
Shortages stemming from Iran’s inability to access the international banking system, and exacerbated by unscrupulous officials, made the hunt for many medicines and medical devices a costly and full-time endeavor for the sick and their loved ones. The steep decline in the value of Iran’s currency made the cost of treating illnesses prohibitive for many.
For ordinary citizens with less dire health problems, there were also difficulties getting access to drugs that allowed them to function normally.
Prescriptions that could previously be filled with several months’ worth of supplies, as they would be at any American pharmacy, were suddenly only being filled with pills for a few days. This created new challenges for a society that was already struggling with so many problems.
As reports of those unintended — but no less brutal — consequences of that earlier sanctions campaign against Iran emerged, adjustments were made to minimize that suffering.
The Obama administration at the time considered “whitelisting” banks that could be used for the transfer of funds to purchase medical supplies from international sellers. That wasn’t deemed a good fix, because of the difficulty in verifying that those banks were not also involved in illicit activities.
One step that did work, though, was expanding the list of medical devices that businesses that were allowed to trade with Iran could sell, and then actively encouraging them to do so.
The same destructive effects of U.S. sanctions that were addressed then are thus far being ignored in the current tensions with Iran.
“We are seeing quite the opposite now, including the denial of the problem. The administration is actually discouraging people from using this legitimate channel,” Richard Nephew, the lead sanctions expert during the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran and currently adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia, told me.
The Trump administration could easily publicly announce change in policy that would allow exceptions for lifesaving products that the United States doesn’t usually license. It would be a small act of good will that signal to the Iranian public that we don’t want to inflict undue harm.
On the surface, though, it seems that mercy for Iran’s most vulnerable is not yet part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran.
“Any application of sanctions is going to have unstated consequences. This administration certainly hasn’t done anything to alleviate those problems in any meaningful ways,” Nephew said.
Ultimately, whatever the administration’s goal, impeding access to health care should be off-limits.
Trump’s Iran advisers constantly claim that they are on the side of the Iranian people and that the goal of the United States is to improve their lives. So far, however, only the opposite has been true.
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