Iran's presidential elections offered a rare opportunity for the world's media spotlight to shift from focusing on Iranian officials, donning white lab coats flanked by metallic centrifuges, to the Iranian people. Tens of millions of Iranians headed to the polls to elect moderate, reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani, a result that should please the U.S. and the world.
The U.S., however, cannot take credit for the election results. This is a sign from the people of Iran that they want a change. After three decades of diplomatic isolation, the U.S. had little opportunity to constructively influence this election or Iran's electoral processes. But if the U.S. wants to make a real difference in the daily lives of millions of Iranian men, women and children, they can ensure that sanctions don't block Iranian patients from accessing life-saving medicines.
In the weeks leading up to Friday's election, the Obama administration, to their credit, dispatched a team of Treasury and State Department officials to ensure that sanctions won't impede the export of medical supplies to Iran. The team visited Europe to reassure governments that they won't be penalized for exporting humanitarian goods to Iran. Engaging Europe is critical because Iran largely depends on imports of U.S. and European drugs to treat life-threatening conditions like cancer and multiple sclerosis.
Unless the Obama administration backs up this rhetoric by changing sanctions policies, however, Iranians will continue to face tremendous difficulties in buying medicine for hemophilia and other serious health conditions. The fix lies in the banking sector and the underlying problems with sanctions laws and policies, which imposed a sweeping set of sticks against nearly the entire Iranian banking sector.
Here's what happens: While it is legal, in theory, to export humanitarian goods to Iran, the indiscriminate banking sanctions make doing so difficult or impossible. Patients in Iran are dying of treatable diseases because they cannot find banks that will allow them to pay for medicines only available on the international market.
Curing Iran's medical shortages will require that the Obama administration carve out a legal pathway for countries and companies to sell food and medicine to Iran without fear of penalty.
President Obama could single-handedly establish a clear channel for humanitarian trade by including a blanket waiver for all humanitarian transactions in existing executive order sanctions, as a broad coalition of peace and security organizations and business and industry groups have encouraged him to do.
Congress has sent mixed signals on protecting Iranians' access to humanitarian goods. While Congress has passed laws to protect food and medicine exports to Iran, the House of Representatives is expected to vote soon on sanctions legislation that would deal a major blow to humanitarian trade. The bill, House Resolution 850, would force other countries to reduce all trade with Iran, including food and medicine sales, or face U.S. sanctions. This would be disastrous.
Simultaneously, there is growing concern from the Senate about the side-effects of U.S. sanctions policy. Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, highlighted the human impact of sanctions when he said at a recent hearing, "I think we're ending up turning public opinion [in Iran] in a different way than we would actually like."
In the same hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) referenced reports from the International Crisis Group and Iran Project, which detail the political and humanitarian consequences of indiscriminate sanctions. Reports from the Wilson Center and the Atlantic Council echo these concerns, and recommend that the U.S. remove its own obstacles to the export of medical supplies to Iran as a humanitarian and national security imperative.
Sanctions have already wreaked havoc on humanitarian trade to Iran, with 2012 exports from U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies down by an estimated 30 percent from 2011. The administration's formation of a team to address this crisis is a significant step forward to reverse this trajectory, but significant changes in U.S. policy, like the ones mentioned above, are essential.
As the elections signified, it is the Iranian people who will ultimately shape the destiny of Iran. And it is the Iranian people who have borne the brunt of sanctions, and it is these human impacts that must always be at the forefront of U.S. sanctions policy considerations.
As a first step to repairing the U.S. relationship with the Iranian people, the Obama administration and Congress must ensure that U.S. policies do not stand in the way of millions of Iranian civilians accessing the medicines they need to survive. It is, above all, the humane thing to do.