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Medicine shortage cripples Iran

Western sanctions over the country’s nuclear programme are hitting ordinary citizens the hardest.

world Updated: Jan 16, 2013 01:25 IST

Haji Mohammad sells tobacco at an arcade in Shahrak-e Gharb, a well-to-do neighbourhood in northeast Tehran. He earns about 2m rials (£100) a month, which used to be enough to support a modest life with his wife. But since the West tightened sanctions against Iran last year, the elderly couple have struggled to survive.

“I’m destitute,” Mohammad said. “My wife is ill. I have no money to pay for a doctor. I have no medicine money.”

He starts work at 8am and does not go home until 9pm. But still his earnings are not enough to cover the basic necessities.

“Yesterday I went to buy a few kilogrammes of rice, cooking oil and chicken,” Mohammad said. “I paid 1million rials and I owe them another 1.5 million.”

The vale of Iran’s currency plummeted after the imposition of new sanctions against the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme (video), exacerbating already high inflation rates. Beef, which used to cost 120,000 rials a kg a year ago, is now more than 200,000. A bag of rice has nearly doubled to 70,000 rials. A can of beans and mushrooms is 32,000 — more than twice what it was last January.

As the economy falters, Iranians say that property crime is on the rise. A recent robbery has compounded Mohammad’s misery. He lost 20m rials in goods, he said.

And even if Mohammad had enough money to buy his wife’s medicine, it might not be available. One of the most devastating consequences of EU and US sanctions is the shortage of potentially life-saving drugs. Although medicines are not blacklisted, pharmacists say financial measures against banks and trade restrictions are making it impossible to import what they need.

Patients with cancer, muscular dystrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as motor neurone disease) are among those most at risk, said Mojtaba, the proprietor of a 24-hour pharmacy in east Tehran. “You also have to include haemophiliac patients,” he added. “If they miss their drugs, they will have unstoppable bleeding.”

The death of Manouchehr Esmaili-Liousi, a 15-year-old with haemophilia, in November was the first to be directly attributed to sanctions. But hundreds of thousands of Iranians with life-threatening illnesses are unable to get the treatment they need.

Arash, a 30-year-old with long hair and a substantial moustache, said he can no longer find drugs to treat his father, who had a heart attack a year ago. “His doctor prescribed carnitine for him when he was released [from the hospital]. It comes as pills and in liquid form. But neither exist [here] these days.” He says his father has tried domestically produced versions, “but they are not useful. They don’t have the effect of imported drugs.”

Ali, 37, a bookseller on Enghelab Avenue, one of central Tehran’s main streets, believes the stresses of the past year have taken a deep toll on the spirit of the Iranian people. “Greed has seeped into all dimensions of our lives,” he said. “For me, my friendships have been reduced to business transactions. I take care of those who benefit me. If I know that someone may be useful to me, then I show them respect. I shun those who are not profitable to me.”

Sanctions are biting at both ends of the socioeconomic scale. Marzieh, a 25-year-old English teacher at a private children’s centre, said she had been forced to curb her designer fashion habit. “I’ve given up my fancy ways,” she said. “I can’t afford designer clothes or watches. I can’t even buy decent shampoo any more. My hair is ruined.”

Foreign products, which many urban Iranians prefer to anything domestically manufactured, are increasingly scarce. Those that are available are now priced out of reach of many more women.

Faced with rampant unemployment, more graduates are considering their prospects abroad — even as those opportunities are closing down. Studying in the West has long been the favoured route for the brightest, but fewer foundations and universities are willing to support Iranian students since the advent of sanctions. “No one wants their money in Iranians’ hands,” said one board member at a prominent US foundation.

A journalist who works at a reformist newspaper said the psychological impact of sanctions accounted for the “sluggishness” of the political opposition. The Green movement that emerged in the wake of Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election “was comprised of citizens with one essential quality: a belief in life”, he said.

He cites the example of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young protester whose death made her the international symbol of the movement. She had been accompanied by her music teacher on the day she died. “She was engaged in a hopeful activity, playing music. That gave her more of an impetus to engage in peaceful demonstrations,” the journalist said.

“But now, because of the harsh sanctions, this hope in life has greatly faded. The Green movement is a movement that feeds off of a hope in life.”

So the Green movement is done for? “No,” he said. “The despondency may last for several months or years. But it will become a cause for anger. It raises questions: ‘Why should I live under sanctions?’ And they will take to the streets again.”

Guardian News Service