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U.S. sanctions leave Iranians without life-saving medicines as their economy tumbles

Tehran — With Iran's economy in free fall after the U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal and escalated sanctions on Tehran, prices of imported medicines have soared as the national currency has tumbled about 70 percent against the dollar. Even medicines manufactured in Iran are tougher to come by for ordinary Iranians, their cost out of reach for many in a country where the average monthly salary is equivalent to about $450.

Eight-year-old Taha Shakouri keeps finding remote corners to play in at a Tehran children's charity hospital, unaware that his doctors are running out of chemo medicine needed to treat the boy's liver cancer.

Taha's mother, Laya Taghizadeh, says the hospital provides her son's medication for free — a single treatment would otherwise cost $1,380 at a private hospital. She adds the family is deeply grateful to the doctors and the hospital staff.

"We couldn't make it without their support," says the 30-year-old woman. "My husband is a simple grocery store worker and this is a very costly disease."

Iran's health system can't keep up and many are blaming President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign for the staggering prices and shortages. The sanctions have hurt ordinary Iranians, highly affecting prices of imported medicines, sending prices for everything from staples and consumer goods to housing skyward, while raising the specter of war with the U.S.

The Trump administration infuriated Iran by not only backing out of the nuclear agreement signed under President Obama's watch, but then hitting Iran with some of the harshest economic sanctions ever and declaring it would seek to bring Iran's oil revenue down to zero. The goal of the White House is to cripple Iran's economy in hopes of forcing Tehran into negotiating a wider-ranging deal, but thus far the strategy has yielded no change in tack from Tehran.

Diplomats from Iran and five world powers recommitted Sunday to salvaging a major nuclear deal amid mounting tensions between the West and Tehran since the U.S. withdrew from the accord and reimposed sanctions. Iran is pressuring the European parties to the deal to offset the sanctions President Trump reinstated after the U.S. pulled out.

People withdraw money from an ATM in the Iranian capital Tehran's grand bazaar on Nov. 3, 2018.  Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

While the United States insists that medicines and humanitarian goods are exempt from sanctions, restrictions on trade have made many banks and companies across the world hesitant to do business with Iran, fearing punitive measures from Washington. The country is cut off from the international banking system.

"Our biggest concern is that channels to the outside world are closed," said Dr. Arasb Ahmadian, head of the Mahak Children's Hospital, which is run through charity donations and supports some 32,000 under-16 children across Iran.

The banking sanctions have blocked transactions, preventing donations from abroad, he said. Transfers of money simply fail, including those approved by the U.S. Treasury. This economic wall has started to affect the Iranian medical system. 

Official reports say Iran produces some 95% of the basic medicines it needs and even exports some of the production to neighboring countries, but when it comes to more sophisticated medication and medicines for costly and rare illnesses and medical equipment, Iran depends heavily on imports. And though the state provides health care for all, many treatments needed for complicated cases are simply not available. Many prefer to go to private hospitals if they can and avoid long waiting lists at state ones.

Those who still have some cash often turn to the black market. Others travel from rural areas to bigger cities in search of drugs for their loved ones.

Last month, at the G20 Summit in Japan, President Trump said there is no timetable to end sanctions on Iran. 

"There's absolutely no time pressure," he added. "I think that in the end, hopefully, it's going to work out. If it does, great. And if doesn't, you'll be hearing about it."

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