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Q&A: Iran’s Medical Shortages: Who’s Responsible?

Jasmin Ramsey interviews SIAMAK NAMAZI

WASHINGTON, Jun 3 2013 (IPS) - For two years, reports have surfaced describing medical supply shortages in Iran, some with devastating consequences, as debate continues to rage about who’s responsible – the Iranian government or the sanctions regime.

Courtesy of Siamak Namazi

Courtesy of Siamak Namazi

Siamak Namazi, a Dubai-based business consultant and former Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, admits the Iranian government shares responsibility, but says sanctions are the main culprit.

Humanitarian trade may be exempted from sanctions, says Namazi, but that isn’t enough when the banking valve required to carry out the transactions is being strangled.

“[I]f [sanctions advocates] maintain the sanctions regime is fine as it is, then how come they try to promote substitution from China and India?” asks Namazi.

IPS sat down with Namazi in Washington, DC to discuss this issue further. Excerpts from the longer interview, which can be found on Lobe Log, follow.

Q: You recently authored a policy paper published by the Woodrow Wilson Center where you essentially blame medical shortages in Iran on Western sanctions. How did you reach this conclusion?

A: We concluded that the Iranian government deserves firm criticism for mismanagement of the crisis, poor allocation of scarce foreign currency resources and failing to crack down on corrupt practices, but the main culprit are the sanctions that regulate financial transactions with Iran. So, while Tehran can and should take further steps to improve the situation, it cannot solve this problem on its own. As sanctions are tightened more and more, things are likely to get worse unless barriers to humanitarian trade are removed through narrow adjustments to the sanctions regime.

My team and I reached these conclusions after interviewing senior officers among pharmaceutical suppliers, namely European and American companies in Dubai, as well as private importers and distributors of medicine in Tehran. We also spoke to a number of international banks. None of us had any financial stake in the pharmaceutical business whatsoever, and we all worked pro bono.

Q: What is your basis for this claim given the humanitarian exemptions to the sanctions regime that allow for the trade of food and medicine?

A: The U.S. Congress deserves kudos for passing a law making it abundantly clear that humanitarian trade in food, agricultural products, medicine and medical devices are exempted from the long list of sanctions against Iran. This law is the reason why the Western pharmaceuticals can do business in Iran. I sincerely applaud that gesture.

Unfortunately, what we see is a case of what lawyers refer to as “frustration of purpose.” Iran can in theory purchase Western medicine, but in practice it is extremely difficult to pay for the lifesaving drugs it needs. Despite the Congressional directive, a number of Executive Orders that restrict financial transactions with Iran remain in place, making it all but impossible to implement that exception.

Sanctions also limit Iran’s access to hard currency. The country’s oil sales are seriously curtailed and have effectively been turned into a virtual barter with the purchasing country, mainly China and India.

Q: Not all Iranian banks are blacklisted by the U.S. and there is a long list of small and large international banks that could carry out humanitarian transactions. Why can’t Iran use these channels for importing the medicine it needs?

A: The non-designated Iranian banks are small and lack the international infrastructure required to wire money from Tehran to most foreign bank accounts. They rely on intermediary banks to process such transactions. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, for these Iranian banks to find such counterparts, even when they are trying to facilitate fully legal humanitarian trade.

In the end, Iran needs to go through many loops and plays a constant cat and mouse game, creatively trying to find a channel to pay its Western suppliers of medicine.  Not only does this increase the costs of medicine for the Iranians, it also causes major delays. In the meanwhile, pharmacy shelves run empty of vital drugs and the patient suffers.

Q: Why can’t Iran procure its medicine from China, India or Japan — the countries it’s selling oil to?

A: Iran has already increased its purchase of medicine and medical equipment from all the countries you listed. However, as I stated earlier, due to the highly regulated and patented nature of the pharmaceutical business, vital drugs are often un-substitutable.

Even when there is an alternative drug made by the Chinese, Indians or Japanese, there is an additional barrier. Medicine has to be registered before its importation is permitted. Just like the U.S. has the Food and Drugs Administration, Iran, like most countries, has an equivalent body that must approve the medicine. The specific molecule must be registered after thorough testing.

In Iran this process takes an exceedingly long time and should no doubt be improved, though recently they have taken steps to expedite it by making exceptions. The Ministry of Health sometimes allows a drug that was approved for sale in another country to also be imported and sold in Iran. But this rushed process has had major consequences in terms of side-effects. There are even press reports of deaths when substandard drugs were imported.

To be honest, I don’t understand the logic of the advocates of this solution. They argue that the existing humanitarian waivers are sufficient and claim any shortage of medicine in Iran is the consequence of Tehran’s own mismanagement. I have even heard accusations that Iran is intentionally creating such shortages to create public outrage against the U.S.

But if they maintain the sanctions regime is fine as it is, then how come they try to promote substitution from China and India? Besides denying Iranian patients their right to receive the best treatment there is, aren’t they also rejecting the American pharmaceutical companies’ right to conduct perfectly legitimate business?

Q: So is there a solution to all this?

A: Absolutely, and I have spelled it out in my op-ed in the International Herald Tribune and also in the Wilson Center report. It simply makes no sense to say humanitarian trade is legal, but the banking channel needed to facilitate the trade is restricted. In the case of medicine, the solution is arguably simpler than other humanitarian goods.

With fewer than 100 American and European companies holding patents to the most advanced drugs needed, we can craft narrow, but unambiguous exemptions to the banking restrictions, essentially allowing these companies to sell medicine to Iran without undermining the sanctions regime overall.

To address the shortage of hard currency, Iran should be allowed to convert some of its current holdings in Chinese, Indian and other banks around the world into hard currencies for the exclusive purpose of buying medical supplies. Alternatively, the US could revisit its earlier decision on the matter and allow European companies that owe billions of dollars to Iran to settle this debt by paying a pharmaceutical company on Iran’s behalf.

U.S policymakers are reminded that medicine is highly subsidised in Iran. Imported drugs receive hard currency allocations at a greatly subsidised rate and are again supported through government-owned insurance companies. That means that the Iranian government ultimately gains far fewer rials for every dollar it allocates to an importer of medicine than it does selling its hard currency to importers of most other goods.

*A longer version of this article was published at

Siamak Namazi, a Middle East specialist whose career spans the consulting, think tank and non-profit worlds, is currently a consultant based out of Dubai. His former positions include the managing director of Atieh Bahar Consulting, an advisory and strategic consulting firm in Tehran. He has also carried out stints as a fellow in the Wilson Center for International Scholars, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the National Endowment for Democracy.

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