InternationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 07

Perils of US sanctions on Iran

US sanctions on Iran have started hurting the common people badly. They pose a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health and access to essential medicines while the government remains largely unfazed and unaffected by them. It is clear the sanctions are more about US interests than they are about improving the lives of ordinary Iranians.
It is strange that US foreign policy has flip-flopped on almost every issue except Iran and it is escalating the situation under a plan after decertifying a nuclear deal. After one round of sanctions in August and the next round in November last year, the US appears to be on a covert mission to destabilize Iran and force regime change. However, US sanctions have drastically constrained Iran’s ability to finance humanitarian imports. The consequences of redoubled US sanctions, whether intentional or not, pose a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health and access to essential medicines, and has almost certainly contributed to documented shortages, ranging from a lack of critical drugs for epilepsy patients to limited chemotherapy medications for Iranians with cancer, according to a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.
In May 2018, the Trump administration formally withdrew from the international nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), agreed upon by the Obama administration in July 2015. Over the next 120 days, until November 5, 2018, the US government re-imposed all economic sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program that had been previously lifted, including “secondary sanctions” on non-US entities that conduct financial or commercial transactions with Iran.
According to the latest report, at the core of the harmful knock-on effects of renewed US sanctions on Iran is that in practice, the sanctions have largely deterred international banks and firms from participating in commercial or financial transactions with Iran, including for exempted humanitarian transactions, due to the fear of triggering US secondary sanctions on themselves. As a result, Iranians’ access to essential medicine and their right to health is being negatively impacted, and may well worsen if the situation remains unchanged, thereby threatening the health of millions of Iranians.
On several occasions, US officials have indicated that the pain US sanctions are causing for ordinary Iranians is intentional, part of a strategy to compel Iranian citizens to demand their government to “change behavior” – a recipe for collective punishment that infringes on Iranians’ economic rights. The restrictions on financing, combined with the sharp depreciation of the Iranian currency, the rial, have resulted in severely limiting Iranian companies and hospitals from purchasing essential medicines and medical equipment from outside Iran that residents depend upon for critical medical care. Moreover, renewed US sanctions have directly impacted families’ purchasing power, contributing to inflation rates of around 30 percent in the past year. Iran’s nearly universal health care coverage currently absorbs a significant portion of health care costs. But the failure of this system, which is already under serious financial stress, will likely have devastating effects on millions of patients, the international rights watchdog observed.
The current economic sanctions, despite the humanitarian exemptions, are causing unnecessary suffering to Iranian citizens afflicted with a range of diseases and medical conditions. Some of the worst-affected are Iranians with rare diseases and/or conditions that require specialized treatment who are unable to acquire previously available medicines or supplies. This includes people with leukemia, epidermolysis bullosa (EB, a type of disease that causes fragile, blistering skin), or epilepsy, and individuals with chronic eye injuries from exposure to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.
The consequences for these individuals can be catastrophic: people with severe forms of EB are now unable to access specialized bandages and are at significantly increased risk for bacterial infections, sepsis, fusion of fingers, and contractures of joints. Individuals with epilepsy who are resistant to common treatments and unable to access foreign-made medicines may suffer frequent, uncontrolled seizures that risk injury and result over time in severe, permanent brain damage. Shortages of essential medicines can affect a much broader range of patients as well. For example, an Iranian journalist has reported on severe complications after a Caesarean section believed to be related to the use of a “non-standard” anesthesia medicine because of lack of access to higher quality medication.
Excessive caution or “overcompliance” by banks and pharmaceutical companies wary of falling afoul of US sanctions is a significant factor in limiting Iran’s access to funds for imports of medicines and medical equipment. As former French ambassador to Washington Gérard Araud told a Hudson Institute gathering in October 2018, “the fact is that banks are so terrified by the sanctions that they don’t want anything to do with Iran.” In the case of the specialized bandages needed for patients with epidermolysis bullosa, the Human Rights Watch found evidence that a European company refused to sell the bandages as a result of sanctions despite the humanitarian exemption. In two other instances, he Human Rights Watch reviewed correspondence from banks refusing to authorize humanitarian transactions with Iran after the imposition of sanctions.
This fear has even caused problems for humanitarian actors supporting thousands of Afghan refugees in Iran. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is the largest of five international NGOs working in Iran, where they have implemented programs in areas like education for over seven years. However, they are now facing similar hurdles financing their operations due to sanctions.
Experts say Iran has proved to be one of the most resilient in the region since the 1979 revolution. It has survived a plethora of social, economic and political crises, including an eight-year war with its neighbour Iraq, unilateral sanctions by the US in 1979 and joined by the UN in 2006 and the EU in 2016, the 2009 Green Movement protests where hundreds of thousands questioned the legitimacy of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Under Obama’s sanctions, the percentage of Iranian families living in poverty almost doubled, millions were left without access to essential medical treatment, and child marriage – according to one measure – rose by a fifth, as struggling families pulled their girls out of school and married them off to alleviate extreme financial hardship. Sanctions that seem unrelated to innocent civilians often have unforeseen consequences, like the almost 2,000 Iranians who have died in plane crashes since the country’s isolation from the international community began to limit access to spare parts.
Iran has braved the toughest rounds of sanctions in the last four decades when the Europeans, China and even Russia were siding with the US. Under the Trump administration, China and Russia are not on board because the Americans have withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal unilaterally. There is no chance for the Americans to succeed in their plan of regime change in Iran. In the situation, the US should offer talks to resolve issues with Iran, instead of creating problems for the common people of the Islamic Republic, the region and itself.