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U.S. Sanctions Cut Off Iranians' Access To Medicine, Iran Says


We are hosting the program across continents today, which gives us perspective to cover a major global story. The United States is working to increase its pressure on Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to the United Nations yesterday and accused Iran of, quote, "extortion diplomacy." Pompeo called on skeptical world leaders to act. The U.S., of course, dropped out of a nuclear agreement last year and imposed sanctions on Iran. It is pressing Iran to change its involvement in countries from Syria to Yemen. So how do those sanctions affect Iran's behavior and also its people? Steve is in Iran's capital to find out this week. And, Steve, I guess just start by giving me the big picture. What was it like to arrive there and how does it feel on the streets?

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Well, it's a big city that is still vibrant. It's a modern city - lots of glass buildings, lots of traffic on the streets, some new businesses, sometimes trendy coffee shops and so forth. But you feel the pressure once you sit down to coffee and talk with people. There is massive inflation here. Food prices are way up. And frankly, many parts of the economy just don't seem to make sense.

GREENE: And is that hitting everyone? Is everyone suffering from it?

INSKEEP: No, not at all because in the more affluent parts of this gigantic city - millions of people here - the well-off have clearly protected themselves, and you can see it because there's a real estate boom. There are a lot of construction cranes and ongoing projects. So parts of the economy are doing pretty well. Economists even say the second quarter here in Iran was not so bad. Yet many people are struggling and frustrated, and that has triggered a big debate here about what's wrong and what to do.

GREENE: Well, we're focusing on one part of that debate this morning, and it's about Iranian access to medicine. Iran's foreign minister has said that the U.S. is cutting off access to cancer drugs. Is that really true?

INSKEEP: Well, this is an explosive accusation, David. It's potentially so damaging that Brian Hook of the U.S. State Department even released a video to call it a myth.


BRIAN HOOK: The truth is that the United States exempts medicine and medical devices for the Iranian people from U.S. sanctions.

INSKEEP: So who's right? Well, the U.S. is right that sanctions do not apply to medicine, yet it's widely admitted that the flow of medication to Iran has slowed. To find out why that would be, we visited a cancer clinic in Tehran. Dr. Mastaneh Sanei showed us around, and we began noticing little white statues in the waiting rooms and treatment rooms.

MASTANEH SANEI: Yes, we have angels everywhere in this clinic.

INSKEEP: Why angels?

SANEI: Angels, (laughter) they save you.

INSKEEP: Dr. Sanei is dressed in several tones of blue. She smiles a lot and says she enjoys the scientific advances in her work.

SANEI: Every day, new things happen. Every day, new discoveries. But patients make you depressed. It's a bad disease.

INSKEEP: She fights cancer in part with U.S. drugs and U.S. technology.

I see the radiation signs on the walls here.


INSKEEP: The warning radiation sign - universal language.

A thick red metal door slid open, and we walked into a room where a huge gray radiation machine loomed overhead. A physicist, Neda Sendani, told us that each patient must lay down on a hard, black surface beneath it.

And then everyone goes away and they're alone in this room with this machine.


INSKEEP: That must be very frightening for many of your patients.

SENDANI: You know, we have here a camera and see the patient.


SENDANI: But the patient is alone here.

INSKEEP: Alone with their disease also.

SENDANI: Yes, exactly.

INSKEEP: Doctors here say it is now hard to have the U.S.-made machine maintained or replace parts. They say it is also hard to obtain a U.S.-made cancer drug. As we'll hear in a moment, it is tricky to pinpoint just why. But Dr. Sanei has a theory that is widely shared, a theory of why U.S. companies wouldn't sell.

SANEI: Even if they want to sell, they cannot transfer money.

INSKEEP: So it's the banking sanctions.


INSKEEP: She's convinced that this is the reason she has to treat some of her patients without the latest technology.

Has anyone died as a result?

SANEI: Of course, yes. You may not cure this patient, but they have the chance to prolong the survival.

INSKEEP: If they have the proper drugs.

SANEI: Yes, if they have.

INSKEEP: And they haven't had.


INSKEEP: Are U.S. sanctions really the reason? U.S. companies don't exactly say so. The makers of that radiation machine told us they do sell to Iran. The U.S. makers of the cancer drug, they told us it's not registered for sale in Iran. Yet Western officials have clearly seen a problem. The U.S. State Department has reassured U.S. companies they can sell medicine. European countries even tried to set up a special office to finance food and medicine, but its work has begun slowly. All of this leads to a question for Dr. Sanei, a question we are posing to many Iranians.

Who do you blame for this problem?

SANEI: I don't like the politics Mr. Trump has decided to do.

INSKEEP: You blame the United States?

SANEI: Not definitely.

INSKEEP: Really?

SANEI: Not definitely. They are right about the things they say about our country, but we are not guilty - people are not.

INSKEEP: You are saying the United States is right to accuse Iran's government of certain acts but that the people are being punished?

SANEI: Of course, yes.

INSKEEP: She says she is doing humanitarian work, and she doesn't want to get caught in politics.

GREENE: Steve, amazing she'd speak so frankly in a country known to punish criticism.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Although, some Iranians do speak frankly and debate their government. Even an Iranian official said recently that money for medical services has disappeared through corruption, which is a statement that U.S. officials have repeated.

GREENE: All right. Our colleague Steve Inskeep reporting from Tehran this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.