USA Today cautioned recently that “War with Iran won’t be a quick affair.” A Pittsburgh newspaper plaintively wonders whether “War with Iran” is a “Necessity or Folly.” Talk of war is in the air. What many in this country don’t realize is that the U.S. is already engaged in a war with Iran. We just don’t hear about it. The name of the war that is already underway is “sanctions.”
Economic sanctions have been called “a war against public health,” and a “weapon of mass destruction” that “may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history.” Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, the United States has “employed a policy of sanctions, demonization, containment, and deterrence against Iran, which has impeded Iran’s right to development and brought great suffering to its people,” according to the American Iranian Council.
Both the United States and the European Union have intensified their sanctions against Iran in recent months. To the great shame of the U.S. media, the suffering that has resulted remains almost completely unknown, and thus largely uncontroversial, in this country, other than on tactical grounds (“Necessity or Folly?”). Still, if one looks hard enough and widely enough, there are hints to be found of the human consequences of the U.S./European sanctions regime.
The Human Cost of Iran Sanctions
Writing in al Jazeera on July 11th, Tehran-based political analyst Mohammad Ali Shabani wrote about traveling around Tehran with the wife of a man with cancer, looking for chemotherapy drugs that were unavailable through normal channels. He reported that “Repeatedly, we were told that there was a shortage of many foreign drugs because of the sanctions, even though the West’s punitive measures don’t directly target supplies such as medicines.”
Near the end of a major front-page story in the New York Times of February 7th 2012 appeared the following words:
“The crisis [brought on by the sanctions] has taken a toll on medical care, affecting the middle class as well as the poor. Because of the ever-tighter pressure on any kind of trade with Iran, the black market price of Herceptin, a breast cancer drug, has nearly doubled in the past year, said Lian, a young nurse who works in the cancer ward of one of Tehran’s major hospitals (the government regulates the mainstream supply of such drugs, but supplies are very limited).
“The sanctions have also affected medical technology, because radiology machines fall under the ‘dual use’ provisions of laws aimed at keeping nuclear technology out of Iran. At Shohada Hospital, one of the country’s premier institutions, about 1,200 cancer patients a year go without radiological treatment, because the radiology equipment is no longer working and replacement parts cannot be brought into Iran, said Pejman Razavi, a doctor at the hospital.”
On October 17th, the Guardian of London published an article headlined, “Iran Sanctions ‘Putting Millions of Lives at Risk.’” The opening paragraph read,
“Millions of lives are at risk in Iran because western economic sanctions are hitting the importing of medicines and hospital equipment, the country’s top medical charity has warned. Fatemeh Hashemi, head of the Charity Foundation for Special Diseases, a non-government organisation supporting six million patients in Iran, has complained about a serious shortage of medicines for a number of diseases such as haemophilia, multiple sclerosis and cancer.”
Outside of the corporate press we learn that “With the plunging Iranian currency and staggering inflation, many Iranians have had to cut back on what they purchase and eat. Many Iranians live on monthly government subsidies of $40 – $50 that are no longer sufficient to meet their food and shelter needs.” (Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, August 2012)
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously on November 29th to tighten the sanctions against Iran yet again, a vote that was largely ignored by the U.S. media.
Noticing Suffering, Re-assigning Blame
One particular article on the impact of sanctions that appeared recently serves as an example of news coverage that just seems weird… until we recognize that what we’re seeing is the deployment of Propaganda against an O.D.E., or Officially Designated Enemy, of the United States.
The article in question appeared in the Washington Post on the day after Thanksgiving, Friday November 23rd. Headlined “In Iran, Frustrations Building over Health Care,” the lead paragraph reads like this:
“Iran is facing a possible crisis in its health-care system as a result of economic sanctions and alleged government mismanagement of diminishing state funds, according to officials here.”
And thus the tone was set: There’s a crisis in health care in Iran, with the responsibility split between sanctions, on the one hand, and on the other hand an Iranian leadership that can’t—or won’t—manage its money properly.
It’s remarkable how closely the Post hews to the more-or-less official government line, best summarized in a comment made to the London Guardian in October by an official in the British Foreign Office: “Whilst it is true that sanctions are having an impact on the Iranian population, this is compounded by the Iranian government’s economic mismanagement. Iran’s leaders are responsible for any impact on their people. . .” [Emphasis added]
The rest of this Washington Post article works very hard to assure that whatever blame is due for the suffering of the Iranian people goes in the right direction.
Criticism from “Officials”?
Despite the opening reference to “officials” alleging “government mismanagement,” if one reads the entire Post article one notices that there is only one “official” cited who makes such allegations. This is the head of parliament’s health committee, who is quoted as saying that “the government is playing with our people’s health and is not assigning the approved finances.” He’s not the only official quoted in the article, but all the others speak about mismanagement, but rather about the sanctions, and about the difficult conditions under which the Iranian government has struggled in recent months.
About halfway through the article we read, “With oil exports down and Iran’s ability to conduct international financial deals severely hamstrung [by sanctions], the bulk of [public] funds have not been delivered by the central bank this year. As a result, the health ministry has received only a fraction of its budget, and care has suffered.”
While the one official cited above sees this as the government “playing with people’s health,” the Post article itself, after giving some hints of the severity of the drug shortages in Iran, tells us that the explanation for the shortages is “complicated”:
“The scarcity derives from a complicated set of circumstances that includes both a heavy dose of Western sanctions, which are aimed at forcing Iran’s leaders to halt their uranium-enrichment program, as well as what critics here say are missteps by the government. While some of the anger over the shortages has been directed at the United States and other global powers, there has also been an internal backlash.”
Indeed, says the Post, “Ordinary citizens have expressed frustration with their government.”
[It must be noted that the Post’s claim about the “aims” of Western sanctions are disputed. The Raha Iranian Feminist Collective suggested in a recent article “that sanctions against Iran . . . are meant to, first of all, appease calls for sabre-rattling at home and by Israel; second, assert economic control over Iranian oil, while curbing Iran’s increasing influence in the region; and third, lay the groundwork for a diplomatic due-diligence claim in order to justify any potential military strike.” That’s a different set of “aims.”]
Criticizing the Government? Or Pleading for Help?
The Post tells us that “critics” are “frustrated” with “missteps by the government,” which indicates an “internal backlash.” The article does make it appear that Iranians are frustrated, and are criticizing. . . something. But is it the government? The Post cites the case of “Zohreh, a 60-year-old housewife,” who “said the price for her daughter’s epilepsy drug has doubled in the past three months. ‘When I ask why they have raised the price, they say we have a shortage of the medicine,’ she said. ‘The government must help poor people like us.’” So, is this a “critic” of the government? Or is this a citizen asking for, or perhaps expecting, help from her government? Almost at the end of the article we get a hint:
“One of the tenets of the Islamic republic since its inception in 1979 has been universal health care. Any working Iranian is entitled by law to insurance coverage from their employer. Even privatized health care is greatly subsidized and had been relatively affordable until the past several months.” Indeed, a 2001 report prepared by officials at the World Bank noted that, at that time, “The Government’s focus on primary care has resulted in access to primary care services for almost the entire population and health outcomes that are among the best in the region.”
In other words, for 33 years the Iranian government has been “helping poor people like us” get access to health care. What has changed in “the past several months”? What has changed is that the U.S./European sanctions have been strengthened and—in the words of many commentators in this country—have “begun to bite.” While all of this may seem rather weird, perhaps the weirdest comment appears in the second-to-the-last paragraph: “While sanctions have forced many Iranians to adjust their consumption habits, accepting less from the health-care system is a sacrifice few seem willing to make.”
As we saw above, this polite phrase—“adjust their consumption habits”—refers to Iranians not having enough money to pay for food and shelter, an “adjustment” which it’s unlikely that anyone, in Iran or anywhere, is “willing” to make. The Post had made a similar point earlier in the article, saying that “Iranians have demonstrated a resilience to the impact of sanctions in many sectors of the economy. But,” said the Post, “Iranians have grown accustomed to receiving highly subsidized medical treatment from the government, and they hold authorities responsible for rising prices or unavailable medicines.”
Could it be that, rather than an indication of an “internal backlash,” what this Washington Post article is really telling us is that the Iranian people expect and demand that their government find a way to help them in the face of the collective punishment knows as sanctions? Could Zohreh’s plea—that “The government must help poor people like us”—reflect a belief among the Iranian people, or at least some of them, that they have some sort of a right to health care? Such an interpretation may seem foreign to people in the United States, who are constantly told that our “poor people,” too, must accept a lack of access to needed health care. In this country the cause of “rising prices or unavailable medicines” is not sanctions, but simply “market forces.” Yet the frustration is the same, whether or not the corporate media reports it. There is much to criticize about the Iranian government, and there are many Iranians, inside and outside of the country, who struggle daily for greater democracy and justice in Iran. The U.S. and European sanctions, in addition to causing enormous suffering, make the struggle for peace and justice in Iran more difficult. The sanctions must be lifted.
Jeff Nygaard is a writer and activist in Minneapolis, Minnesota who publishes a free email newsletter called Nygaard Notes, found atwww.nygaardnotes.org
A version of this article appeared in Nygaard Notes Number 519, December 7, 2012