Hundreds of thousands of Iranians with serious illnesses have been put at imminent risk by the unintended consequences of international sanctions, the British Guardian reported on Sunday.
The sanctions have led to dire shortages of life-saving medicines such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer and blood clotting agents for hemophiliacs, the report said.
Western governments have built waivers into the sanctions regime, aimed at persuading Tehran to curb its nuclear program, in an effort to ensure that essential medicines get through, but those waivers are not functioning, as they conflict with blanket restrictions on banking, as well as bans on "dual-use" chemicals which might have a military application.
"Sometimes companies agree to sell us drugs but we have no way of paying for them. On one occasion, our money was in the bank for four months but the transfer repeatedly got rejected," Naser Naghdi, the director general of Darou Pakhsh, the country's biggest pharmaceutical company, told the Guardian, in a telephone interview from Tehran.
He added, "There are patients for whom a medicine is the difference between life and death. What is the world doing about this? Are Britain, Germany, and France thinking about what they are doing? If you have cancer and you can't find your chemotherapy drug, your death will come soon. It is as simple as that."
European officials are aware of the potential for disaster reminiscent of the debacle of the UN oil-for-food program imposed on Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and discussions are under way in Brussels on how to strengthen safeguards for at-risk Iranians, reported the Guardian.
The U.S. treasury says its office of foreign asset control is seeking to reassure banks that they will not be penalized for financing humanitarian sales.
However, the U.S. and EU bans on doing business with the major Iranian financial institutions still make such transactions extremely difficult and western companies have tended to avoid them, the report noted.
Naghdi, the head of Darou Pakhsh, which supplies about a third of Iran's pharmaceutical needs, said he can no longer buy medical equipment such as autoclaves (sterilizing machines), essential for the production of many drugs, and that some of the biggest western pharmaceutical companies refuse to have anything to do with Iran.
"The West lies when it says it hasn't imposed sanctions on our medical sector. Many medical firms have sanctioned us," Naghdi said.
A senior British official acknowledged that discussions between London, Brussels and Washington had been going on for months with the aim of unblocking the supply of medicines, but without a decisive outcome.
"The problem is that for some of the big pharmaceutical companies and banks it's just not worth the hassle and the risk of reputational damage, so they just steer clear," the official told the Guardian.
The international financial sanctions and the EU oil embargo last year have caused severe damage to the Iranian economy but have so far not forced the Tehran regime to accept restrictions on its uranium enrichment program. Iran insists it is for electricity generation and medical purposes, while the West and Israel claim it is a front for Iranian ambitions to build nuclear weapons.
Major western powers have suggested a new round of talks in Istanbul in mid-January, but Tehran has yet to confirm any date or venue.
Meanwhile, the scale of the looming Iranian health crisis threatens to overwhelm recent efforts to mitigate the sanctions regime. At present 85,000 new cancer patients are diagnosed each year, requiring chemotherapy and radiotherapy which are now scarce.
Iranian health experts say that annual figure has nearly doubled in five years, referring to a "cancer tsunami" possibly caused by air, water and soil pollution and possibly cheap low-quality imported food and other products.
In addition, there are over 8,000 hemophiliacs who are finding it harder to get blood clotting agents. Operations on hemophiliacs have been virtually suspended because of the risks created by the shortages, reported the Guardian.
An estimated 23,000 Iranians with HIV/Aids have had their access to the drugs they need to keep them alive severely restricted. The society representing the 8,000 Iranians suffering from thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder, has said its members are beginning to die because of a lack of an essential drug, deferoxamine, used to control the iron content in the blood.
In the absence of an official supply, the drug market is being flooded with smuggled products. Many arrive on donkeys from Turkey, but there is no way of knowing which products are counterfeit and which are real, noted the report. The drugs routinely spoil on the long, precarious journey over the rugged frontier.
The Foreign Office in London said in response to reports of the health crisis in Iran, "There are a number of explicit exemptions within EU sanctions to allow Iran to purchase humanitarian goods such as medicines. The UK issues, as a priority, licenses for transactions for humanitarian goods. The responsibility for any shortage in humanitarian goods in Iran lies with the Iranian regime."
Last week an Iranian minister broke ranks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and admitted that the sanctions have sliced oil exports by 45 percent.
Ahmadinejad has steadfastly denied that the sanctions are hurting the economy, but Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi has reversed his previous denials of any decline at all.
The Iranian President said last month that while the sanctions "have led to a drop in our oil", they did not break down Iran's economy as the West had hoped.
Ahmadinejad has faced increasing scrutiny at home for economic woes, including the collapse of the national currency, which lost more than two-thirds of its value in a 20-day span starting in late September.
Iran's economy is struggling to cope with the gradual tightening of the sanctions over the past two years.
The sanctions have also targeted Iran's access to the global banking system, slowing its economy, accelerating inflation and boosting the ranks of the jobless.