In the past week, Iran has been struck by two earthquakes that have killed dozens of people and leveled hundreds of homes. And because of the political standoff with Iran’s government, Americans–including Iranian Americans with family in the affected regions–are largely unable to provide any help.
Such natural disasters are nothing new for Iran. Just last year, quakes hit the northern region of Tabriz and killed hundreds. In 2003, a massive earthquake shook the region of Bam and killed over 26,000 people, making it one of the worst natural disasters of the last century. And many fear that, if an earthquake hits the densely populated capital of Tehran, the toll could be far worse.
In the cases of Tabriz and Bam, the U.S. took efforts to attempt to ensure that sanctions did not interfere with relief efforts. Both President Bush and President Obama issued general licenses to temporarily waive sanctions that prevent American relief organizations from providing humanitarian services to Iranians.
In the aftermath of these most recent earthquakes, relief organizations are still waiting to hear from President Obama whether a waiver will be issued to allow them to provide assistance. But as time goes by, it is clear that–with what has now become a near total embargo in place against Iran–the process of putting temporary bandaids on the sanctions every time there is a natural disaster is not sustainable. Moreover, sanctions are not jus interfering with relief efforts, they are causing a daily humanitarian impact by restricting the sale of life-saving medicines to Iran. This is a critical and totally preventable humanitarian problem that requires a permanent fix.
When the earthquake struck Bam in 2003, the U.S. license that was issued was not perfect. It only lasted for a total of twelve months, meaning that as soon as it expired, the American NGOs working to rebuild had to pack up and leave their recovery efforts behind, some only halfway done. But groups were still able throughout that process to find ways to send money and supplies into the country and to enable Americans to support those efforts.
However, when the earthquake struck Tabriz nearly a decade later in 2012, the problems created by sanctions were far worse. That is because the sanctions have been broadened considerably in the ensuing years and have now made it nearly impossible to conduct any international banking transactions involving Iran.
As a result, American relief NGOs have told me, even with the general license for humanitarian services, there are no banking channels to send money into Iran. That means that even if an NGO has people on the ground, there is no mechanism to send their teams the donations they are raising for relief efforts. Banks that NIAC contacted after the 2012 quake told us that even with the Obama Administration’s waiver, they would not process transactions intended for Iran for fear of violating sanctions.
Instead, NGOs who wanted to help were forced to cash their donation checks and pack that cash–sometimes totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars–into suitcases, book a ticket to Iran, and fly the donations directly into the country.
This is no way for relief efforts to work. At the same time, it illustrates the central problem for why on a daily basis life saving humanitarian goods are not being sent or sold to Iran.
While there is a general license now in place that technically allows medicine to be donated or sold to Iranians, there are no banks willing to process those transactions. If pharmaceutical companies were charities that were willing to donate their products, this wouldn’t be a problem. They could just pack the drugs into suitcases and fly them into the country for donation. But without a way for these companies to sell their goods and get paid, they have pulled out completely from Iran, leaving a vacuum for life saving medicines for which there are no non-Western providers.
So how can we fix this?
There are a number of pragmatic proposals that are finally starting to be debated by policymakers. These include proposals offered in reports issued by the Wilson Center, the Atlantic Council, and an eminent group of former senior U.S. officials.
These approaches attempt to address the central issue of enabling banking channels for humanitarian goods to be sold to Iran. One approach would be to issue a general license to allow for transactions with Iranian banks that are exclusively limited to food, medicine, and other humanitarian purposes. This would include transactions with the banks that have been designated under sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. Some might bristle at the notion of allowing these sanctioned banks to handle transactions despite their blacklisting, but doing so would enable medicine and humanitarian relief to flow and would also divert currency from objectionable activities.
Unfortunately, even as pragmatic solutions are debated, the politics threaten to get in the way. There is a notion that any easing of sanctions, even if it is to lift pressure on Iran’s people and focus it squarely against the regime, is a sign of weakness. Some seem to believe that if the U.S. in any way acknowledges that sanctions have been even partially to blame for the medicine shortages and humanitarian problems in Iran, this somehow removes the onus from the Iranian government.
However, the opposite is true–if the U.S. takes action to ensure sanctions are not part of the problem, it will put the onus squarely on the Iranian government. By ignoring the problem, and allowing the empirical evidence to mount that sanctions are indeed helping to deprive Iranians of life saving medicines and humanitarian relief, we are only providing Iran’s government with ammo to claim that the West is to blame for the Iranian people’s ills and punish the Iranian people who should otherwise be on our side. And, we further legitimize the assessment that these sanctions are a repeat of the Iraq sanctions that fell apart after killing hundreds of thousands and which ultimately led to war.