UN envoy highlights Iran's humanitarian situation amid stalled talks over nuclear deal

Special rapporteur says ordinary people are feeling the pain of measures imposed to put pressure on the country's leaders

Alena Douhan, the UN's special rapporteur, focused on the impact of sanctions on Iranian people at a press conference in Tehran. EPA
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Sweeping US sanctions imposed on Tehran have badly affected Iran’s economy and worsened the humanitarian situation in the country, a United Nations special envoy said on Wednesday.

According to Alena Douhan, the UN special rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures, the sanctions have affected Iran’s main export groups, banks, several companies and citizens, and pharmaceutical and food production.

Iranian opposition and human rights activists also blame poor governance and the use of the country's limited resources to support proxies in the region for deteriorating living conditions.

Former president Donald Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in 2018, citing Iran's continued missile development and regional meddling. He re-imposed US sanctions lifted under the deal and introduced new, tougher measures against Tehran.

The nuclear deal had granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for strict curbs on its nuclear programme. Talks in Vienna to revive that deal — something the Biden administration is trying to do — have stalled.

Ms Douhan, a Belarusian who was appointed in 2020 and reports to the UN Human Rights Council, said the “sanctions have been substantially exacerbating the humanitarian situation in Iran”.

The measures have led to inflation and growing poverty, and depleted state resources for dealing with the basic needs of people with low incomes and other vulnerable groups, Ms Douhan told reporters at a press conference in Tehran.

She said people suffering from “severe diseases, disabled people, Afghan refugees, women-led households and children” were particularly affected by the sanctions.

She urged countries that imposed unilateral sanctions against Iran, especially the US, to remove them.

European negotiators said there is an agreement on the table to revive the nuclear deal and that the US and Iran need to endorse it. Washington and Tehran are reportedly at odds over the removal of the US terrorist designation of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The negotiations neared agreement in March before Russia demanded that its trade with Iran be exempted from western sanctions over its war in Ukraine, which added another obstacle to a final announcement.

Despite the deadlock, officials say the urgency to close the deal has grown as Iran’s controversial nuclear programme has rapidly advanced.

In recent weeks, public anger over worsening economic conditions has mounted in Iran following price hikes of food staples under a new policy to amend the food subsidy system. Scattered protests have erupted in several provinces, with Iranian state media acknowledging nearly two-dozen arrests.

Bus drivers in Tehran seeking a 10 per cent pay increase walked off the job on Monday, paralysing parts of the capital, and teachers have gone on strike in cities and towns across Iran in the past few months to demand more pay and better working conditions.

In July last year, mass protests were held in Khuzestan province against a severe water shortage. amid accusations the government was diverting water to drill for oil.

The government denied this and blamed the water scarcity problem on sanctions that blocked imports of water pumps, as well as climate change.

Oil workers at dozens of companies staged strikes last year in a protest over low pay and poor working conditions.

And in 2019 what began as scattered protests over a surprise increase in fuel prices quickly spread into some of the biggest demonstrations in the 40-year history of the republic.

Independent researchers and opposition activists accuse the Iranian regime of making economic and living conditions worse by allocating money from already cash-strapped state coffers to fund its proxies and allies in the region.

In the absence of official accounting, it is not clear exactly how much financial support Iran has given to the Syrian regime, the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But in 2020, the former head of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, told local media that Iran had probably paid between $20 billion and $30bn to Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011.

Syrian state media have also highlighted Iran’s reconstruction of some of Syria’s power plants, gas pipelines and communications networks, which could cost billions of dollars.

The US has accused Iran of giving the Houthi rebels in Yemen significant military support, mirroring a financial and military strategy that has been the mainstay of its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Iran has rejected the accusations.

Updated: May 19, 2022, 12:51 PM