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Innocent Iranians Off the Agenda in Almaty

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As a new round of talks between permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran came to a close, both sides expressed cautious optimism on the road ahead. Despite this positive momentum to start 2013, by no means was the agenda in Almaty comprehensive. Both sides should be held accountable for a glaring omission during the talks: failing to address the medical supply shortages caused by sanctions and exacerbated by Iranian government mismanagement.

Innocent people are deprived of access to vital medicine as a result of the shortage, with some even paying the ultimate price -- even though they are neither responsible for or have influence over Tehran's nuclear policies.

If U.S. officials are correct in noting that the Iranian government is trying to portray a manageable problem as bigger than it really is, why are internationally-respected research organizations publishing reports to the contrary? And if decision-makers in Tehran have legitimate complaints about medical supply shortages caused by sanctions, why did they fail to raise the issue in Almaty?

For its part, Washington's rhetoric does not appear to match reality. Its explanations for medical supply shortages have thus far put the blame squarely on the Iranian government, with descriptions ranging from "self-induced" to "regime propaganda." In-depth research, however, tells a different story. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the International Crisis Group (ICG) have published reports featuring detailed interviews with Iranian manufacturers and distributors of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, as well as their international suppliers of raw and finished materials. Both reports corroborate this take-home point from the Wilson Center:

Iran had the same government and the same companies running the pharmaceutical and medical supplies business -- all with the same deficiencies -- prior to the ratcheting up of sanctions; yet Iranian patients did not lack in healthcare in the same way that they do today. Shortages began when the continuous tightening of sanctions eventually placed overwhelming obstacles in the way of humanitarian trade. There is no chicken and egg argument to be had in this instance...

What may have been unintended consequences on the part of Washington in no way excuses Tehran's own shortcomings. There is no doubt that Iran's unpreparedness for and mismanagement of sanctions compounded and exacerbated the complex problem of medical shortages. As the Wilson Center report clearly states, "Tehran must improve its foreign currency allocation competence and transparency, as well as governance of the [Pharmaceutical] sector." The ICG report elaborates on Iranian government negligence, noting how "smugglers of counterfeits as well as black market operators have seized the opportunity to maximize their profit."

Solving this problem will require both sides to take steps they are either unwilling or politically unable to take in the current context. Unless they act quickly to resolve a crisis that will only grow worse over time, Washington and Tehran each deserve their fair share of the blame. As they prepare for subsequent rounds of talks in the coming weeks, both sides have an opportunity to put this issue on the agenda.

Washington should project the dignity and poise of a superpower by taking two key steps: acknowledging the role that its sanctions play in causing medical supply shortages in Iran; and implementing the eminently reasonable policy recommendations on this issue that both the Wilson Center and ICG reports outline.

Tehran should follow suit by taking two important steps of its own: publicly explaining why it did not raise the issue of sanctions and medical supply shortages during the talks in Almaty; and prioritizing this issue in future negotiations with equal or greater emphasis than it currently places on the technical aspects of its nuclear program. All governments -- whether authoritarian or democratically elected -- have a fundamental responsibility to provide for the basic humanitarian needs of their people. Any legitimate grievances the Iranian government has on this issue are weakened by its own neglect and malfeasance.

At present, the likelihood of either side taking the initiative remains low -- but far from impossible. Until both sides take responsibility for their actions, innocent Iranians will continue to needlessly suffer. Washington and Tehran each insist that they are not at fault. More importantly, they both say they want to get this situation resolved. Almaty was a missed opportunity to take steps in that direction. As the old saying goes: When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council. Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran.

The post first appeared on BBC Persian.