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A bitter pill to swallow

Medical shortages lead to first Iranian sanctions death

by Gareth Smith

The death last month of Manouchehr Esmaili-Liousi, a 15-year-old boy suffering from hemophilia, has been reported in the Iranian media as the first fatality caused by the latest financial sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union.

While sanctions do not directly target Iranian pharmacies or the wider medical sector, 75 percent of the medicines for treating hemophilia are made in the US and the EU, and supplies have dropped by two-thirds. Drugs are also in short supply for patients suffering from cancer and multiple sclerosis.

The problem is that Iran’s central bank, the only official channel for transferring money abroad, is a major target of sanctions. Many international private banks are increasingly loath to handle transactions or accounts in any way linked to Iran, given the risk of attracting attention from the US Treasury Department.

Without a doubt, 2012 has seen an unprecedented tightening of the noose around Iran. US and EU measures against third-party buyers have halved Iran’s crude oil exports to between 1.1 million and 1.3 million barrels per day, undermining government revenues and helping send the rial into a decline that has seen its international value halved in a year. What’s more, the US congress is intent on legislation that would further reduce President Barack Obama’s room for maneuver in loosening sanctions as a quid pro quo in any negotiations. 

The military stand-off, especially in the Persian Gulf, has become an accepted day-to-day reality. Iran’s shooting at a US surveillance drone early in November reflects a trend that saw 2012 begin with extensive Iranian naval exercises in the Persian Gulf and threats from senior officials — including the first vice-president, Mohammed Reza Rahimi — to close the Strait of Hormuz if there were any move against Iran’s oil exports.

Talks between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, which were revived in May after a lapse of over a year, failed to get beyond generalities. Real progress will not be made through such an unwieldy structure, and it is significant that Sergey Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister and point-man on Iran, made it clear last month for the first time that Moscow accepts the need for direct contact between Washington and Tehran.

Reports that senior US and Iranian officials met quietly in Qatar in October may indicate the two sides accept this. The word in Washington is that a window of opportunity has opened with the re-election of Obama as president and will last until preparations begin for the Iranian new year, Nowruz, a festival that closes down the country for several days before March 21. 

The window may close then because when Iran goes back to work after Nowruz, politics will be dominated by the presidential election scheduled for June 14, when voters choose a successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the expiry of his maximum second term. But the window could then re-open, especially if, as widely expected, the new president has a better relationship with the rahbar (‘leader’), Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a clearer unity of purpose replaces the current rivalries between the foreign ministry, the president’s office and the leader’s office. 

Loud whispers in Washington refer to a ‘more for more’ process in which the US would seek verifiable nuclear curbs from Iran in exchange for US concessions, including sanctions relief. But where the US bottom line lies — would Iran have to ship out all its 20 percent-enriched uranium? — is unclear, and considerable political opposition exists on both sides to any kind of deal. 

Another problem for US would-be peacemakers is the perception abroad that the Islamic Republic is vulnerable and even in danger of collapse. Despite sanctions, this is far from true. June’s presidential election will probably have a higher turnout than the 65 percent in the March 2012 parliamentary elections and will no doubt be hailed by the authorities as a victory over the scheming foreigners.

In fact, it may be that tighter sanctions, in ‘heating up’ politics, were partly responsible for March’s turnout being comfortably higher than parliamentary elections in 2004 and 2008, when it barely reached 50 percent. 

Continuing coverage of Iranians dying for lack of medicines may help the authorities to motivate voters. With the US claiming ‘success’ with the sanctions and the Iranian leadership ‘victory’ in its defiance, 2013 is unlikely to make either side any keener on compromise.

Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for nearly two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran

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Gareth Smith

Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for more than two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran.

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