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U.S. Sanctions Against Iran Play A Role In Scarcity Of Medication

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now to Iran, where some Iranians are saying they're caught in the middle of the continued confrontation with the U.S. Those with illnesses are having trouble getting medicine, and they believe U.S. sanctions are, at least in part, to blame. Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: For Rahela, a 65-year-old living in the Iranian coastal city of Rasht. The sanctions have caused problems for her and her husband. She says her husband is diabetic and needs insulin daily. And not long ago, there was a serious shortage. Rahela herself suffers from the neurodegenerative disease myasthenia gravis. And she says she hasn't had this much trouble finding medicine since the Islamic Revolution more than 40 years ago. Reached in Iran via WhatsApp, she said the sanctions don't target medicines, but she can attest to their scarcity.

RAHELA: (Through interpreter) Yes, I've heard a lot in the news that they say sanctions don't include medicine, but I don't really understand how. I don't know why this is happening. But however it is, many medicines are disappearing from the market, including mine.

KENYON: The Trump administration says the sanctions are intended to deprive Tehran of the resources it uses to fund its, quote, "malign behavior" in the region. But even though the U.S. says it's not targeting medicines, Ayat Abedini, a doctor who works in the pharmaceutical sector in Tehran, says American sanctions are definitely one cause of some of the medical shortages. Abedini says because the government has reduced the legal import of medicines, a dangerous black market trade has grown up.

AYAT ABEDINI: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: "These limits on direct import," he says, "have brought about an increase in fake medicines." He says the squeeze on Iran's oil exports has left the government with less money to devote to health care. Meanwhile, Iranians are hoarding what medicines they do find, and imported medicines have grown scarce.

ABEDINI: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: "There are many examples, from diabetes to cancer medicines, where we have big limitations in importing them," he says. A health ministry official told the state news agency recently that Tehran is planning to lodge a complaint with the International Court of Justice over the sanctions. Analyst Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, professor of economics at Virginia Tech University, says the Biden administration could make an immediate difference if the new Treasury secretary simply eases up on the aggressive enforcement of sanctions, especially financial sanctions.

DJAVAD SALEHI-ISFAHANI: And that by itself would open up some opportunities for Iranians, especially to import medicine, something they need badly, which is not under sanctions right now, but because movement of funds between Iran and other countries is prohibited. Very few companies that sell this, either the equipment or the medicine, are willing to trade with Iran.

KENYON: It's not clear how quickly Biden might act on the Iran sanctions, but Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, says the process wouldn't be time consuming at all, requiring just a few executive orders.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACK IBANEZ'S "WEEKEND WARRIOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.