Earlier this month, the U.S. government announced tighter sanctions on Iran. In particular, the actions would further limit Iran’s access to oil revenues “by restricting Iran’s ability to use oil revenue held in foreign financial institutions as well as preventing repatriation of those funds to Iran.”
Western sanctions have severely limited the country’s ability to sell oil on the world market and decreased its access to the international banking system. The sanctions have been imposed because of Iran’s refusal to stop its uranium enrichment program. Iran claims the uranium is for nuclear power reactors, while the U.S. and its allies say Iran is striving to build nuclear weapons.
The U.S. government has repeatedly stated that sanctions are ‘targeted’ at Iran’s nuclear program and not the Iran’s people. Washington points to humanitarian exceptions from the sanctions for agricultural commodities, food, medicine or medical devices. As with any sanctions regime, there is an ongoing debate about how effective sanctions are and who they really hurt.
“We have no quarrel with the people of Iran,” David S. Cohen, the Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the U.S. Treasury Department, said in an interview with VOA. “The ultimate objective here is to try and slow down the development of Iran's nuclear program and to put pressure on those senior officials in Iran who are responsible for making policy judgments with respect to the nuclear program, not to make food and medicine scarce.”
But there have been numerous reports of shortages, particularly of medicine, and the reports have turned into a propaganda war between the two sides. Iranian government officials blame Western sanctions for the shortages. Western officials blame the Iranian government for mismanaging the situation and causing scarcity.
Iran’s health minister, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, was fired last December after she criticized the government for not providing enough foreign currency to import vital medicines, causing a shortage.
“The hard currency that they needed wasn't allocated to the health ministry,” said Cohen. “Instead, the hard currency is being allocated by the government to other purposes, whether it is supporting the Assad regime [in Syria], supporting terrorism or supporting the nuclear program.”
On the other hand in October, Fatemeh Hashemi, head of the Foundation for Special Diseases, wrote an open letter to United Nations chief Ban Ki moon, saying sanctions have put Iranian patients’ lives at risk, causing a shortage of vital medicine for special diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.
While U.S. exports of medicines to Iran have decreased during the past year, U.S. exports of food, mainly grains, has increased under sanctions, something Cohen can’t explain.
“I've seen statistics that show that food imports into Iran increased last year by 22 percent,” said Cohen. “It's the same international trade mechanisms for food, for medicine, and medical devices. It's the same ships, the same financial transactions. So I can't say precisely why there may be more difficulty with medicine than food, other than I would again point out that much of the problem is the result of the choices that the government in Iran has made.”
In a recent report published by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, sanctions were found to be the root cause of medicine shortages in Iran, with the Iranian government’s mismanagement escalating the problem. The report said shortages of life-saving medical supplies have been "unintentional" but "irrefutable."
“I'm not responsible for image,” said Cohen.” I'm responsible to ensure that our sanctions are applied in the appropriate fashion.”
Cohen added that President Obama has offered Iran an opportunity to engage and “reclaim its position in the international community” if it addresses concerns about its nuclear program.
Here's the complete interview with underscretary Cohen: