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Obama Moves to 'Unblock' Medicine to Iran

Kate GouldRebecca Gould

The Obama administration announced on Wednesday, May 22nd that it will be dispatching a team of State Department and Treasury officials to ensure that Iranians are not blocked from food and medicine as a result of the sanctions regime which intensified under President Obama’s first term.

The administration’s new commitment to protecting humanitarian trade to Iran has been met with high praise from the business and foreign policy groups that have long criticized President Obama’s sanctions policies. Over the past month, Wendy Sherman and David Cohen, two of the highest-level officials on Iran policy in the Obama administration, have publicly responded to these critiques.

In a recent interview with BBC Persian, Wendy Sherman, the Undersecretary for Political Affairs and the top U.S. official in the ongoing multilateral negotiations with Iran, announced that the administration would be taking an unprecedented step to ensure that Iranians would have access to food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.

“We have sent a team around the world,” noted Sherman, “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.”

“The Administration should be applauded for forming a special team to remove obstacles to humanitarian trade,” Richard Sawaya, the Director of USA Engage, an advocacy group sponsored by the National Foreign Trade Council, stated in conversation with the authors of this article. USA Engage represents a coalition of manufacturers, and agricultural and services producers. Sawaya noted that “To ensure that licensed U.S. businesses continue to engage in humanitarian trade for the benefit of ordinary Iranians, it is essential that this new team ensure that global financial institutions will not be penalized for clearing the necessary financial transactions for such trade, all other sanctions measures notwithstanding.”

USA Engage has long maintained that sanctions have contributed to Iran’s medical shortages, while the Obama administration has up to this point placed the blame exclusively on Iran’s own economic mismanagement.

Last month, in his prepared testimony for Congress, U.S. Treasury Secretary David Cohen responded to critics’ arguments that U.S. sanctions contribute to Iran’s dire medical shortages. Cohen asserted that the Administration takes this issue “very seriously” but blamed the increasing lack of access to necessary medicines on the Iranian government. “Whatever shortages may exist,” Cohen argued in his statement to Congress earlier this month, “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.” Cohen’s refutation marks the most high profile response to press reports and claims by business coalitions and other advocacy groups that sanctions have blocked humanitarian trade.

USA Engage issued a rebuttal in response to Cohen’s testimony. Despite the exemptions in U.S. sanctions that are supposed to protect humanitarian trade, USA Engage asserts that banking sanctions currently impede the export of life-saving medicines to Iran. According to USA Engage, the Treasury Department’s sanctions and implementation practices have “critically impeded the financial transactions necessary for this humanitarian trade.”

As a result of the financial sanctions regime, the USA Engage letter argues, “Treasury has created, de facto, unilateral agricultural and medical financial sanctions, negating Congressional intent and effecting a nearly total banking blockade.”

Public recognition from Secretaries Cohen and Sherman of the medical shortages in Iran follows a wave of pressure in Washington think-tank circles and among a range of business, peace and security, and grassroots advocacy organizations calling for the special protections for humanitarian trade. Business groups that have called on Congress to ensure that humanitarian exemptions be maintained in any Iran sanctions legislation include The Farm Bureau, the U.S. Dairy Export Council, the National Grain and Feed Association & North American Export Grain Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

A new report authored in part by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who previously held Sherman’s post as the U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs, concludes that sanctions have contributed to Iran’s medical shortages, and that their consequences threaten prospects for improving U.S.-Iran relations over the long-term. Ambassador Pickering is one of 35 former U.S. officials who signed and endorsed this report cautioning against escalating broad sanctions, produced by The Iran Project, a non-partisan organization that seeks to promote improved US-Iran relations.

The Iran Project report warns that “Public resentment in Iran over hardships produced by economic sanctions could reduce the prospects for improving or normalizing U.S. and Iranian relations over time” and likewise “may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation between the Iranian people and the United States.”

Recent reports from two Washington-based think tanks, the Wilson Center and the Atlantic Council make some of the same points, and note the dramatic drop in U.S. exports of medicine and pharmaceutical products since 2011, a pattern that persists into 2013. Both reports acknowledge that, while the Iranian government deserves its share of the blame, US sanctions play an indisputable role in reducing the availability of medicine and medical supplies for ordinary Iranians.

“The Obama Administration has heard from an increasingly broad spectrum of groups calling on the Administration to support humanitarian trade benefiting the people of Iran,” said Cari Stinebower, Counsel with the law firm Crowell and Moring, and former Programs Officer for the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. In conversation with the authors of this article, Stinebower stated that “the Sherman announcement and Cohen testimony has already spurred unprecedented public attention to the medical shortages in Iran, and is an important signal in support of humanitarian trade.”

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Kate Gould

Kate Gould is the Legislative Associate for Middle East Policy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker lobby in the public interest fielding the largest team of registered peace lobbyists in Washington, D.C. She blogs at: and can be reached on Twitter @k8gould.

Rebecca Gould

Rebecca Gould is an Assistant Professor specializing in Persian literature at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

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