WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. sanctions on Iran threaten access by some Iranians to medicines that treat diseases such as cancer and epilepsy, despite exemptions in the measures for imports of humanitarian goods, a report said on Tuesday.
“There’s no acute nationwide shortage of medicine in Iran at this point,” Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher at Human Rights Watch and an author of the report, said at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. “But people who are suffering from rare and special diseases are already seeing the negative effect of sanctions.”
If the situation does not change, “we expect the harm to be even greater,” Far said.
Iran’s MAHAK Pediatric Cancer Treatment & Research Center lacked three key chemotherapy drugs - pegaspargase, mercaptopurine and vinblastine - in May, the report said.
Hundreds of people who have epidermolysis bullosa, or EB, a type of disease that causes fragile, blistering skin, had difficulty accessing medicine after the sanctions were imposed, it said.
Food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are exempt from sanctions that Washington reimposed last year after President Donald Trump walked away from a 2015 international deal over Iran’s nuclear program.
But the U.S. measures targeting everything from oil sales to shipping and financial activities have deterred several foreign banks from doing business with Iran, including humanitarian deals. Imports of grain have been slowed as well.
As oil exports fall, it could result in higher inflation and affect the affordability of medicine, the report said.
In response to the report, a U.S. Treasury Department official said exceptions to the sanctions allowed the sale of agricultural commodities, food, medicine and medical devices to Iran. “The people of Iran have long suffered from the regime’s corruption and mismanagement,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
A mechanism the Treasury Department introduced last week will facilitate humanitarian exports to Iran, the official said.
A senior administration official told Reuters this month that any drug shortages represented the Iranian government’s prioritization of its missile program and other initiatives.
The official conceded that slowdowns in some drug imports were possible, but put the onus on Tehran, which the official said must address corruption in the medicine trade. “To blame us for that is a little more than just disingenuous,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Last week, the Treasury and State departments said the administration’s new humanitarian mechanism would ensure “unprecedented transparency” into food and medical trade with Iran.
It requires foreign governments and banks to provide Treasury an unprecedented amount of information on a monthly basis to ensure no funds are diverted by Tehran “to develop ballistic missiles, support terrorism, or finance other malign activities,” the administration said.
The move sparked a debate on whether humanitarian trade would be eased or gummed up as it requires banks to reveal large amounts of information.
Adam Smith, a lawyer who worked on sanctions under former President Barack Obama, said the new mechanism could enhance humanitarian trade if the banks find that the markets are big enough to go through the trouble.
“I actually don’t think this could make things worse,” Smith said at the Atlantic Council. “But ... there’s still more that needs to be released about how this will work and what the risks are if you get it wrong.”
Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney