On Tuesday, The Washington Post published an article headlined, “In Iran, Sanctions Take Toll on the Sick.” The headline and the story trumpet the human suffering U.S. banking sanctions have reportedly visited upon the Iranian people. Correspondent Najmeh Bozorgmehr, reporting from Tehran, interviews the parents of a boy with hemophilia who had to travel 400 miles to Tehran in order to find the drugs necessary for his treatment. Ahmad Ghavidel, the head of Iran’s Hemophilia Society said, “This is a blatant hostage-taking of the most vulnerable people by countries which claim they care about human rights. Even a few days of delay can have serious consequences like hemorrhage and disability.” Bozorgmehr also talked to the heads of the Tehran Province Thalassemia Association and an adviser to the Iran Charity Association to Support Kidney Patients.
The story would be tragic if sanctions really were to blame. In 1999, when I was studying in Tehran, I met a couple from the southwestern province of Khuzistan who were in the city because they could not access the facilities or medicine necessary to treat their cancer-stricken daughter in their home province. Such stories were common. Corruption and the regime’s perverse priorities took their toll on Iranian health. Not surprisingly, those with chronic and rare conditions suffered most. If the same problems afflicted Iranian society years before U.S. banking sanctions as after U.S. banking sanctions, then it stands to reason that sanctions are not to blame. Perhaps, rather, the regime is. If those who are most opposed to sanctions truly cared about Iranians living in Iran, they would be as active if not more in seeking an end to what truly has been and become an odious regime, not through foreign force but rather by encouraging aid to independent labor unions and civil society organizations seeking to restore the legacy of Iran’s brief period of constitutional and parliamentary democracy.
The episode, of course, recalls accusations of mass deaths resulting from international sanctions on Iraq. Iranian officials are savvy, and they know how to craft effective propaganda. In Iraq, for example, Western journalists bought hook, line, and sinker the idea that sanctions had killed 500,000 children. Of course, after Saddam’s fall, it became clear that while sanctions were devastating economically, the tales of hundreds of thousands of child deaths were simply untrue. They originated within the corridors of Saddam’s Ministry of Health. Western officials and the United Nations, unable to conduct their own medical surveys in Iraq, simply took Saddam’s statisticians’ word for it. It reflects poorly on The Washington Post that its reporters have yet to learn the lessons of the past, let alone ask basic questions about whether the problems they describe predate the cause to which their Iranian interlocutors are willing to ascribe them.