Iranian Sanctions: Iraq Redux?

Human rights and peace activist Shahrzad Khayatian

By Alan Knight with Shahrzad Khayatian, February 8, 2019

Sanctions kill. And like most weapons of modern warfare, they kill indiscriminately and without conscience.

In the dozen years between the two Bush wars (Bush I, 1991 and Bush II, 2003), the sanctions imposed on Iraq resulted in over half a million Iraqi civilian deaths due to a lack of adequate medicines and medical supplies. Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State from 1997 – 2001 and avatar of American values, was OK with this. In 1996, when asked by a television interviewer about the deaths of Iraqi children caused by the sanctions, she famously replied: ”This is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.”

One assumes that Mike Pompeo, Trump’s current Secretary of State and by default the current avatar of American values, didn’t find it such a hard choice. But then he probably hasn’t talked or listened to too many Iranian civilians like Sara.

Sara is 36 years old. She lives in Tabriz, in the far north of Iran, about 650 kilometers from Tehran. Nine years ago she gave birth to a son, Ali, her first child. It didn’t take long for her to realize that there was a problem. At first Ali could eat and swallow but very soon he started vomiting and losing weight. It was three months before Ali was properly diagnosed. Sara feared she would lose him before he was three months old. Even now, her whole body shakes as she tells her story.

“He couldn’t even move his little hand; it looked like he was no longer alive. After three months someone introduced us to a doctor. As soon as she met Ali she knew it was Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects the lungs, pancreas, and other organs. It is a progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time.We are not poor but the medicine was expensive and it came from Germany. A mother with a child like mine remembers every detail of the sanctions. When Ahmadinejad was President of Iran, and the UN sanctions were imposed things became very difficult. It was a new era in our lives and for Ali’s disease.The pills, without which I will lose my son, stopped being shipped to Iran. I paid a lot of money to different people and begged them to smuggle it into Iran for us. I used to go to Iran’s border twice a month or sometimes more to get the medicine – unlawfully – to keep my son alive. But this didn’t last long. After some time nobody would help me and there was no more medicine for Ali. We brought him to Tehran and he was in the hospital for three months. I was standing there looking at my child, knowing that each glance could be the last. People told me to stop struggling and let him rest in peace, but I am a mother. You should be one to understand.”

When you have cystic fibrosis your system can’t process chloride properly. Without chloride to attract water to the cells, mucus in various organs becomes thick and sticky in the lungs.  Mucus clogs the airways and traps germs, leading to infections, inflammation and respiratory failure. And all of your salt leaves your body when you sweat. Sara cries as she remembers Ali’s face covered with salt as he slept.

“Eventually the government was able to buy some of the pills from India. But the quality was completely different and his little body took a long time to adapt. New symptoms started revealing themselves in that weak little body of his. Six years! Six whole years he coughed! He coughed and threw everything up. We took frequent trips to Tehran with Ali, who could not breathe in a normal way. When Rouhani’s was elected President [and the Joint Common Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed] there was medicine again. We thought we’d finally been rescued and there wouldn’t be any more problems for our son. I had more hope for our family. I started working to have more money so that Ali could live like a normal child and could continue at school.”

At this time Sara also learned of more advanced treatment available in the US.

“I was ready to sell everything that I had in my life and take my boy there to know he will live longer than his early twenties, which is what every doctor keeps telling us. But then this new President who rules in USA said no more Iranians are allowed in the USA. We are Iranians. We don’t have any other passport. Who knows what will happen to my Ali before a new President will be elected. Our happiness didn’t last long.”

She laughs bitterly when asked about the new sanctions.

“We are used to it. But the problem is my son’s body is not. Iran is no longer able to pay for the pills my son needs because of the banking sanctions. And even though Iranian laboratories now produce some pills, they are obviously different. I don’t want to talk about the poor quality of the pills; my little Ali has been to hospital tens of times in the past couple of months.And the pills are hard to find. Drugstores are given a small supply. Each drugstore gets one pill pack. At least this is what they tell us. I can’t find the pills in Tabriz anymore. I call everyone I know in Tehran and beg for them to go and search every drugstore and buy me as much as they can, which is not fair to others who have the same problem. It is so hard to call others and beg for them to help keep your child alive. Some do not answer my calls anymore. I understand. It is not easy to go pharmacy to pharmacy and pray for them to help someone that they know nothing about. My sister lives in Tehran, she is a university student. Every now and then I deposit all I have into her bank account and she searches in all of Tehran’s pharmacies. And the price has now almost quadrupled. Every package contains 10 pills and we need 3 packages for each month. Sometimes even more. It depends on Ali and how his body reacts. The doctors say that as he gets older he will need higher doses of the medicine. Before the price was expensive, but at least we knew they were there in the pharmacy. Now with Trump pulling out of the deal and the new sanctions everything has changed. I don’t know how much longer I will have my son with me. The last time we went to Tehran for Ali to be hospitalized, he asked his doctor if he was going to die this time. While the doctor whispered good things in his ear about life and the future we could see tears in Ali’s eyes as he whispered back: ‘Pity’.I can’t stop thinking about my son dying in front of my eyes.”

Sara points her finger with hesitation towards a family across the hall.  

“That man is a taxi driver. His little girl has a disease related to her spinal cord. Her treatment is very expensive. They have no money. There is no medicine for her after the sanctions. The little girl is in such a pain it makes me cry all the time. In the past two years there was not a single time that we came to Tehran that we did not see them here in this hospital.”

The day after we spoke was Ali’s birthday. For Sara, the best gift would be medicine.

“Can you help them? Can’t they bring medicine for these children in pain? Can we be hopeful that some day someone feels what we are facing and tries to change our situation?”

On 22 August 2018, United Nations Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy described the sanctions against Iran as “unjust and harmful. The reimposition of sanctions against Iran after the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, which had been unanimously adopted by the Security Council with the support of the US itself, lays bare the illegitimacy of this action.” According to Jazairy, “the chilling effect” caused by the “ambiguity” of recently reimposed sanctions, would lead to “silent deaths in hospitals”

The US administration insists this will not happen because, as was the case in Iraq, there is an oil for humanitarian trade provision. Under its unilaterally arrogated authority, the US has allowed 8 of its client states, including India, South Korea and Japan, to continue buying oil from Iran. However, the money won’t go to Iran. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s current Secretary of State, explained in response to a negative article in Newsweek that “one hundred percent of the revenue that Iran receives from the sale of crude oil will be held in foreign accounts and can be used by Iran only for humanitarian trade or bilateral trade in non-sanctioned goods and services,” including food and medicines.

One wonders if Madame Albright, the maker of ‘hard choices’, let Pompeo the Liberator know that after a dozen years of sanctions in Iraq and hundreds of thousands of deaths, there had still been no regime change and that the war that followed is till not over sixteen years later.

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