05/12/2014, 00.00
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It is time to end sanctions against Iran because of a pending humanitarian crisis

by Bernardo Cervellera
Milk powder for children, medical drugs and X-ray machines and other medical equipment are in short supply. Pollution caused by the embargo on coal gas causes 22,000 deaths per year in Tehran alone. In little more than ten years, the number of cancer cases increased by 181 per cent. As foreign trade shrunk, unemployment rose. Sanctions help radicals enrich themselves through smuggling. As nuclear talks resume tomorrow in Vienna, hopes rise. This is the first part of a report on Iran.

Tehran (AsiaNews) - Cheesta was born in Tehran just two months ago. When she is not having a colic, she is enjoying her parents' loving care for their first born, her black eyes darting here and there trying to embrace the world around her. Cheesta has no notion of Iran's problems, its nuclear programme, the suspicions about its potential weaponisation or the economic and political sanctions imposed on her country. Yet, she is one of their victims.

Over the weeks after her birth, her parents noticed that she could not tolerate her mother's milk and had to take powdered milk. The problem is that powder milk is not easily available in Iran because of sanctions on financial transactions. Fearing that they might not be paid, foreign producers have stopped supplying it.

After a week of headaches and worries, the baby's father, Karim, found a solution. Having worked in Dubai, he contacted a former colleague in the Arab emirate, who is now sending him on a weekly basis the amount of powdered milk little Cheesta needs to grow.

"Thank God I have friends outside of Iran and my economic situation allows me to cope with the cost," Karim told me.  "However, there are so many people who do not have my chance; for them, it is painful to see their children sentenced by the embargo."

The United States imposed sanctions on Iran in 1979 after the seizure of its embassy in Tehran. The international community and the United Nations followed suit in 2000 with a series of sanctions in response to Tehran's lack of cooperation with the UN Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Suspected of developing a nuclear weapons programme, Iran stopped UN inspections, and refused to halt uranium enrichment.

In turn, sanctions were increased in 2006 and 2012. Although their primary targets were nuclear technology, weapons exports, bank accounts of people and agencies involved with Iran's nuclear programme, their consequences have been disastrous for the civilian population, leading some to speak of a virtual "humanitarian crisis."

Iran's economy has been hard hit by the latest sanctions on the oil sales (which the European Union adopted as well), container transport, maritime insurance, not to mention financial and banking transactions. Ordinary Iranians find themselves facing shortages of food as well as hard-to-get medical drugs and equipment and other goods. Even though UN, EU, and US sanctions do not formally touch humanitarian items, medical drugs and equipment as well as supplies of goods like coal gas have been directly hit.

If little Cheesta cannot find powdered milk, other people cannot, for example, find drugs for Parkinson's disease, or haemophilia. For all but the very few, immunosuppressive drugs (used for transplant patients) are a pipe dream. X-ray machines and nuclear medical equipment (which fall under the embargo on nuclear weapons related products) are equally affected. Only people with relatives or friends abroad, can try to help, but for most Iranians, the lack of drugs is a virtual death sentence.

Pollution is another critical problem related to sanctions. The European Union has banned the exports of natural gas extraction and processing technology. The United States has prohibited investments in Iran's oil and gas sector.

Under Ahmadinejad, the authorities decided to deal with the problem by using gas made from hydrocarbons in lieu of coal gas (which cannot be imported or produced locally). But such gases are highly poisonous. Every year in Tehran alone, at least 22,000 people die from pollution.

This has led to a rise in asthma levels. After a few days in Tehran, I too had problems breathing and my eyes are still red.

"This winter, because we had little rain, the air in the capital was unbreathable," said Karim. "Old people and children have been advised not to leave their home, not even to go to school, because of the high rate of pollution.

According to some immunology centres, asthma kills about 250,000 people per year. About 7.5 million Iranians suffer from it and in Tehran, the level of the disease has been reported to be around 35 per cent. The rate is 13 per cent for children and 5-10 for adults (Source: 'The Impact of Sanctions on the Iranian People's Healthcare System ", September 2013, IIPJHR).

Cancer deaths are largely due to pollution, high food prices and lack of drugs. According to Professor Nasser Parsa, a member of the American Cancer Society, Iran will face a cancer tsunami in 2015. About 85,000 cancer cases are reported in the country each year. Between 2000 and 2011, the rate rose by 181 per cent. According to World Health Organisation, Iran has the highest cancer rate in the Middle East.

Sanctions do not only affect health, but also hope. Many people, young and old, are losing their job. Darius, who was employed by an import-export company was fired a few months ago.

"Since there are no financial transactions outside of the country, no one dares to do business with us," he said. "The volume of business and trade has dropped as never before and people, especially the young, cannot find jobs."

Indeed, because of the embargo on financial transactions, Iranians cannot open foreign bank accounts or transfer money abroad. This has created problems for young Iranians studying overseas.

In view of this, the international community has to ask itself if sanctions are the best way since they affect indiscriminately so many innocent people, undermining the UN's claim that it protects the rights of children, the sick and the young.

A small window of opportunity has opened up with Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, and even Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is open to UN inspections of Iran's nuclear sites.

A new round of talks between Iran and the 5 +1 group (United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, plus Germany) is set to start tomorrow in Vienna on a comprehensive nuclear deal.

The starting point is upbeat and Tehran's overtures have been rewarded with an easing of sanctions. However, the country's disastrous economic situation needs an end to all sanctions, especially financial restrictions.

If humanitarian considerations were not enough, there are also political considerations. Since anti-Western radicals are the ones who profit from the embargo by smuggling into the country what is normally unavailable, and are doing all they can to bring down Rouhani and end talks with the West, a permanent end to the sanctions would undermine their hold on power, which is centred in the Guardians of the revolution and Ahmadinejad's party.

A week ago, Rouhani's opponents held a meeting titled 'We are concerned' to criticise the government for buckling to Western demands in nuclear talks. As if to emphasise symbolically their position, they gathered at the former US embassy, site of the 1979 hostage crisis.

According to Darius, "To continue the embargo means undermining Rouhani and all hopes of dialogue". This would lead to new tensions and conflicts, causing more suffering to the Iranian people.

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