US sanctions ‘targeting’ patients, say doctors at Iranian cancer hospital

Medical staff at the Imam Khomeini Hospital Complex in Tehran say US sanctions are affecting Iran's healthcare system.
Medical staff at the Imam Khomeini Hospital Complex in Tehran say US sanctions are affecting Iran's healthcare system. © Screengrab FRANCE 24

Medical staff at Iran’s top cancer hospital tell FRANCE 24 their patients are paying the price of geopolitical strategies as the country’s health system struggles to cope under crippling US sanctions. The economy tops the agenda as Iran heads to the polls in Friday’s general elections.


The reception area at the Cancer Institute in the Imam Khomeini Hospital Complex in the Iranian capital, Tehran, is packed with patients seeking treatment in the country’s preeminent cancer centre. Nearly two years after the US pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal imposing ever-tightening sanctions, patients and staff at the Cancer Institute are struggling to provide healthcare amid shortages and spiraling drug prices.

“We don't have enough of some types of drugs and we have to import them. It becomes very expensive for our patients. They have to pay in dollars or euros,” explains Wida Shehri, head nurse at the chemotherapy unit.

US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy is posing a serious risk to Iran’s healthcare system, according to an international human rights group. A 2019 Human Rights Watch report found some of the worst-affected were Iranians with rare diseases and conditions that require specialised treatment.

Although Washington has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, the sweeping US sanctions against Iranian banks along with aggressive rhetoric from Trump administration officials have drastically affected Iran’s ability to import medical supplies. 

While Iran produces 95 percent of its drugs, the country has to import ingredients that are difficult to access under the sanctions.

“Exporters want to sell us the drugs. The problem is payment. We don't have ways to transfer money between bank accounts. I think around 50 percent of our patients have been affected by the sanctions,” explains Mahmoud Zadeh, director of oncology at the Imam Khomeini Hospital Complex.

'Cancer doesn't stop'

Iranians are going to the polls Friday in the first general elections since the US imposed sanctions following the pullout from the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday called on Iranians to vote, saying it was “not only a revolutionary and national responsibility, but also a religious duty".

Opposition figures, however, have called for a boycott of Friday’s vote, saying the elections were not democratic and that casting ballots only bolstered Iran’s theocratic rulers.

The elections have been overshadowed by mass disqualifications of over 7,000 mainly moderate and reformist candidates by the Guardian Council oversight body.

Trapped between crippling international sanctions and an authoritarian government, protests erupted across the country but were brutally suppressed earlier this year, according to opposition figures.

At an operating theatre in the Cancer Institute though, surgeons trying to save lives sound tired of being pawns in geopolitical games.

Doctors say medical equipment at the cancer centre is not up to date, increasing the risk for patients.

Surgeons working on a complex operation on a patient suffering from jaw cancer that involved transfering chest tissue cells to the face sounded weary with the situation.

“We are facing some problems during operations,” a surgeon told FRANCE 24. “I don't know really if the target of the sanctions are the politicians or our patients. We are dealing with cancer here and cancer doesn't stop, so we cannot stop.”

Directly or indirectly US sanctions have hit almost all sectors of Iran's economy and it is the economy that is on voters' minds during this election season.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app