By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Slowly but surely, in a scenario reminiscent of pre-invasion Iraq, unilateral Western sanctions on Iran are having devastating effects on Iran’s healthcare sector, adversely affecting the well-being of millions of ordinary Iranians – cancer patients first and foremost. 
According to the latest reports from Iran, despite a recent US easing of sanctions for the export of food and medicine to Iran, the current financial restrictions continue to prove a formidable obstacle for the delivery of medicine and medical equipment to Iran.
Not only that, the US and its allies have blocked an offer by the oil giant Shell to repay its $2.3 billion dollar debt to Iran in the form of grain and medicine. A number of US companies have been fined for sending medical devices to Iran valued at less than $10,000, and even a Canadian yogurt company has been penalized for doing business with Tehran.
Unsurprisingly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has criticized the Western sanctions as being tantamount to the “violation of human rights” of ordinary Iranians, or as a rights issue in addition to a humanitarian issue.
However, a narrow focus on the difficulties of getting medical equipment and medicine and can be misleading. A bigger issue is the larger problem of health deterioration and the increasing mortality rate as a result of the “crippling sanctions”. While targeted at halting Iran’s nuclear program, these instead impact of Iran’s middle class and add to poverty levels.
Iran’s health minister has recently raised alarms about the sheer inadequacy of the health sector to deal with the rising demands and budget constraints.
Even Ahmed Shahid, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, has noted in his just released report that sanctions are having “increasingly adverse impact on the country’s economic and social welfare and raise alarm about the apparent ineffectiveness of humanitarian safeguards,” and he has called on the sanctioning regimes to “prevent the potentially harmful impact of general economic sanctions on human rights”. The only problem with this is the word “potential” since the streaming facts of the harmful health effects are beyond dispute.
In response to the growing criticism of the Western sanctions and their negative impact on ordinary Iranians, the US officials insist that there are no restrictions on the export of medicine to Iran and Tehran’s own mismanagement is responsible for this problem.
Clearly, these officials prefer not to “see the wood, let alone the fire”, as the simple fact reiterated by the presidents of Iran’s cancer society and Iran’s medical association is that foreign banks and companies with few exceptions are afraid of the backlash if they conduct business with Iran.
One potential solution is the establishment of a special UN-supervised fund, drawn from the billions of dollars of oil revenue owed to Iran by its various energy partners such as China and India – call it oil-for-medicine.
Another remedy would be a concerted effort by the US and its allies engaged in multilateral negotiations with Iran to issue a joint policy statement that would be communicated to the hundreds of banks in over 66 countries, which have been contacted by the officials of US Treasury Department to stay away from Iran.
Many of these banks would be reluctant to allow financial transactions for Iran’s medical purchases to take place short of a clear and unequivocal directive from Washington.
There is no reason why such an initiative should not be inserted in the “expert-level” negotiations between Iran and the “5 +1” nations in Geneva, which has commenced this week, as a prelude to their next round on November 7.
The problem is that Western and Israeli interests dictate relentless coercive diplomacy which must continue until Iran dismantles all its centrifuges.
Given Iran’s insistence that the right to enrich uranium is its “red line”, the Obama administration is placed at a fork in the road. It can either appease Tel Aviv and try to go for the jugular by insisting on “zero centrifuge” option, or seek a compromise with Iran that would minimize the risk of “weaponization” and thus earn the ire of pro-Israel lobbyists and lawmakers.
Unfortunately, there are signs that Israel’s intense lobbying against a Western deal with Iran is making some headway, in light of the statement from the US Treasury Department that any talk of easing or lifting sanctions on Iran now or in the immediate future is “premature”.
In other words energy and financial sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future and, as stated above, this will likely result in aggravating the health problem in Iran, risking the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary Iranians.
1. For more see, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/sanctions-and-medical-supply-shortages-iran
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, click here. Afrasiabi is author of Iran’s Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).