Every March, on the Tuesday evening before the Persian New Year (or Norooz, the first day of Spring), Iranians jump over small bonfires. As they leap, they chant zardi-eh man az to, sorkhi-e to az man, asking that the fire take their “yellowness,” representing sickness, and give them its “redness,” representing good health, in the upcoming year. This year, as Iranians engage in this ancient pre-Islamic tradition, their hope for improved health runs deeper than usual. Since 2012, due to current US and European sanctions on Iran, ordinary Iranians often cannot access the life-saving medicine they need to address critical health issues.
Many decision-makers and Iranian Americans alike believe this issue has been addressed through humanitarian exemptions to sanctions. However, the stories on the ground paint a starkly different picture: continued banking and economic sanctions have caused massive shortages of medicine that directly impact the lives of the Iranian people. While humanitarian trade of food and medicine is technically exempt from sanctions, the broad sanctions regime continues to wall off crucial banking channels, effectively blocking the sale of medicines to Iran. A handful of lawmakers such as Representative Jim Moran (D-VA) are courageously leading efforts to raise awareness in the Executive Branch regarding this horrible side effect of the sanctions regime.
This issue is a primary source of pain and grief among thousands of Iranians and Iranian Americans alike, who see US sanctions policies as directly causing unnecessary pain and death among their friends, family, and fellow community members. So widespread is this issue that as the Outreach Director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) — the largest Iranian-American grassroots organization — I hear new stories on this subject on a nearly daily basis. For example, earlier today, I heard from an Iranian American in Orange County whose close relative in Iran recently had to go to the emergency room for a heart condition. Due to severe shortages, the hospital did not have the supplies, medicines, or tools that the doctors needed to operate. To be able to operate successfully, the doctors gave her family a list of surgery supplies and medicines to purchase on the black market. Luckily, the family found the necessary items to save the patient’s life. Unfortunately, few Iranian families are able to help their loved ones in this way, either due to lack of financial resources or an inability to find specialized drugs under the current shortages.
Stories like this one are not simply anecdotes; they are small glimpses into a profoundly far-reaching issue. On January 28, CNN reported that many Iranians have turned to the black market to obtain treatment for cancer due to shortages of vital American and European drugs. The conclusion to many such stories is bleak, however, as many unregulated drugs are tainted imports from China or India, too often are ineffective or expired, and in some cases have even led to horrific side effects or death.
Iranian Americans have long sought to raise awareness on this critical humanitarian issue, and are beginning to gain some traction. On February 22, over 150 Iranian Americans gathered in San Francisco to share stories and come together in support of resolving this crisis once and for all. As a result of their efforts, Representative Jim Moran (D-VA) agreed to take the lead in sponsoring a Congressional letter to the White House, urging President Obama to take necessary steps to ensure sanctions do not block medicine or humanitarian goods. Rep. Moran’s letter makes clear that even as we work to resolve serious concerns regarding Iran’s government, the U.S. stands with the Iranian people. Further, he highlights that Congress has consistently exempted these goods from sanctions, and that under the preliminary nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, the parties agreed to establish a humanitarian banking channel precisely to resolve this issue.
In the spirit of renewal and goodwill this Norooz, Iranian Americans urge our Congressional Representatives to offer support to this critical humanitarian issue. Our foreign policy ought to balance American interests and values alike, and resolving this issue is unequivocally aligned with both.