Washington claims imports of medicine are exempted, but the ground reality says the opposite, as tens of thousands of Iranians in need of emergency medical care are slowly inching towards death.
A few months ago, Zahra, a 48-year-old Iranian woman living in the northeastern city of Mashhad, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her disease is one of the most common cancers in Iran where patients have for years been relying on imported drugs for medical treatment. Despite all the hardships that any cancer patient has to endure, things are even harder for Zahra and other Iranian patients with serious diseases since the country has been faced with “unprecedented sanctions” by the United States, including those on Iranian oil sales and the banking sector.
“We are under sanctions and don’t have the drugs you want!” that was the response Zahra says she has received from “almost all pharmacies” across Mashhad – Iran’s second largest city after Tehran – when searching for chemotherapy medications to complete her treatment.
“I need to have chemotherapy for six months after undergoing surgery in early November. So far, I have received it twice,” she told TRT World.
“Just being a cancer patient is difficult enough and cause all sorts of troubles for the patients or their relatives. So, it is much harder [to endure] when other concerns like the shortage of drugs are added too.”
Although Iranian officials say 97 percent of the country’s required medicines are produced domestically, some 30 percent of that amount are dependent on imported raw material, an issue also acknowledged in Human Rights Watch’s October report about the sanctions’ impacts on the Iranian healthcare system.
“While there is no acute national shortage of basic medicine in Iran, the sanctions have contributed to serious problems in treatment for patients with rare and special diseases such as cancer, epilepsy and other rare genetic diseases that are dependent on imported medicine,” Tara Sepehri Far, the writer and researcher of the HRW’s Maximum Pressure report told TRT World.
In addition to causing shortages, the US sanctions have also sent the price of medicines soaring as the Iranian national currency depreciated against the dollar by as much 60 percent last year. The price hike has occurred despite the fact that the Iranian government has allowed imports of medicines and raw materials at an exchange rate nearly one-third of the free market rate.
Zahra says her monthly drugs for chemotherapy cost her “900,000 rials if bought at the government rate”. However, buying the drugs at the government rate are nearly impossible, forcing Zahra and many others to buy them at free market rates. “If you’re lucky, you can find the drugs in a very limited number of pharmacies. But then it costs me nearly eight-times higher, about seven million rials, than what I could have purchased if it was not for the sanctions,” Zahra told TRT World.
While the US insists that its sanction regime excludes medicines and other humanitarian supplies to Iran, rights advocates like Sepehri Far believe that the “humanitarian exemptions” are “ineffective” as Washington’s measures have “severely restricted Iran’s banking channels that are impacting import of humanitarian goods”.
Adding to the problems are the US threats of imposing sanctions on companies if they do business with Iran in breach of Washington’s measures.
“We have seen numerous correspondents from banks as well as pharmaceutical companies refusing to engage in what should be permissible business with Iran for fear of being targeted by secondary sanctions. And this is not limited to medicine. Humanitarian operations on the ground are also impacted,” Sepehri Far stressed.
Mohsen Sanandaji, the technical manager at a medical equipment company in Tehran, also echoed Sepehri Far’s view regarding the banking restrictions which have hampered imports of medical equipment to Iran. According to him, “a French and a German company immediately stopped their seven or eight years of cooperation with Iran” following the re-imposition of US sanctions in 2018.
Speaking to TRT World about his personal observations he said: “Some hospitals have devices which require a special solution or part to operate. These are usually expensive machines which are available in nearly all hospitals. Thus we have so many equipment worth millions of dollars which are left abandoned since the required special solution or parts for their operation can’t be imported.”
Sanandaji told TRT World: “The absence of the US sanctions in the medical sector is a lie.”
He explained that the financial problems caused by the sanctions have brought huge debts for hospitals. He said: “[It is] making them unable to receive supplies and forcing them to re-sterilise some tools which are disposable such as coronary stents.”
He said the situation at hospitals has also taken its toll on patients, leaving them with no choice but to wait for months to receive medical operations.
This is exactly what has happened to the 70-year-old mother of Mana Elahi, a young woman living in Tehran. Speaking with TRT World, Elahi said her mother had suffered from arrhythmia and had to receive cardiac ablation. But they were told that “the equipment needed for the procedure was not available because of the sanctions preventing its import”.
“After nearly four months, they called us from the hospital and said a limited number of the equipment has been imported; that was when my mother was able to undergo the operation,” she explained.
Having faced the shortages of imported medicines, many Iranian patients or their relatives have taken to social media to search for the items they need or in order to offer help to others.
In this tweet posted on Jan 25, an Iranian user has asked for help in finding a medicine. “Hello friends, I’ve been looking for a chemotherapy drug for my mom for a while but I can’t find it and it has become very scarce. I would appreciate it if you retweet this post so if anyone knows how to find this drug can help me. Thank you,” reads his tweet.
Another user tweeted on Dec 29, offering to provide the German made Lipiodol drug to others after “it was not used” by their cancer patient.
On January 30, the Swiss government began to trial a humanitarian channel to send food and medicine to Iran, with the US Treasury praising the mechanism for “improving the flow of humanitarian goods to the Iranian people”.
But, according to Sepehri Far, while the announcement is a rare acknowledgement of the impact of sanctions on Iranians’ rights, “most analysts believe in this political climate the mechanism would do very little to alleviate the negative impact of sanctions”.
The situation sometimes takes away all hope from patients like Zahra. Although she sympathises with other patients, including children, who suffer from more serious diseases than hers, especially those who cannot afford high prices of medicines, she speaks of the times when she’s under pressure over the problems caused by her cancer. “Sometimes I get upset. I try hard to be patient, but it’s impossible sometimes, and that’s when my family and friends get anxious over the hardship of finding my medicines. Their fear makes me suffer even more, both emotionally and physically to the point that I just pray for the end of everything…”