Washington, DC – The State Department’s top official coordinating Iran sanctions acknowledged on Wednesday that U.S. sanctions have impeded humanitarian transactions for Iran and could potentially undermine international support for the sanctions, indicating that the United States government is actively considering ways to solve the problem.
“There’s a big difference between an exemption in theory and making it work in practice and early when I came on, I learned that, in fact, humanitarian exceptions exist in theory, but not as much in practice as we would like,” said Ambassador Daniel Fried, speaking at the Georgetown Law Center. “We have been listening to those voices urging us to make more seriously our responsibility,” he added.
The current sanctions regime has made it virtually impossible for private companies and humanitarian organizations to send or sell vital medicine and medical supplies to Iran, particularly drugs needed to treat cancer, hemophilia, multiple sclerosis, thalassemia and some other severe ailments.
The National Iranian American Council has been pressing the Obama Administration and Congress to address the issue since 2012 when reports began to surface of medicine shortages in Iran.
While the Obama Administration has issued a general license to exempt medicine and medical devices from sanctions, the practical effect has been blunted because of financial sanctions that have closed off banking channels for these transactions. Fried, who was recently appointed to head the State Department’s coordination efforts, suggested there is an increasing awareness within the Obama Administration that humanitarian exemptions included in sanctions are not having the intended effect.
“We need to make humanitarian exemptions real in a commensurate fashion – the more [sanctions] bite, the more you have to take a look at the unintended consequences of your sanctions,” adding that “sometimes you sweep up transactions that you didn’t intend to sweep up”.
Fried strongly defended the Administration’s sanctions overall sanctions approach, but expressed concern that ignoring humanitarian impact would undercut international cooperation on the sanctions. “You’re inviting a counterblast against sanctions, which weaken them,” he said. “So it is in the interest of a sustainable sanctions policy to be responsive to human rights groups and not be all-defensive and deny that there’s a problem or say that just because we have an exemption in principle, it means we have one in practice… a proper and sustainable sanctions regime has to have a humanitarian aspect.”
The comments were a departure from previous comments by top Administration officials that seemed to deny the humanitarian impact of sanctions. In May, Undersecretary David Cohen, who heads the Iran sanctions efforts for the Treasury, told Congress, “Whatever shortages may exist, and whatever reluctance foreign banks may have to process transactions, the root cause is not our sanctions programs, it is the actions of the Iranian government.”
However, in June, Ambassador Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of Political Affairs at the U.S. State Department, acknowledged that preliminary efforts were underway to address humanitarian blockages stemming from U.S. sanctions. “We have sent a team around the world, talking to countries who said they are having difficulty getting their medicines into Iran, because we want to make sure that they don’t think they may get sanctioned by the U.S. if they send medicine to Iran,” Sherman said in a BBC Persian interview.
Fried’s latest comments indicate there are now further efforts in the works to resolve the sanctions impact on medicine trade. He said his office is listening to outside voices to get a clearer picture of the impact of sanctions. “We take seriously what human rights groups and what sophisticated American observers advise us to do. The other thing we want to do is listen to companies, human rights groups, and Iranian democratic groups because sanctions are complicated and the impact that we think we’re having is not always the impact we have.”
“Unless you believe that the U.S. government is infallible, you better be prepared to listen to people who tell you what the unintended consequences of your actions are. And if you’re not willing to listen, then you’re not being effective.“