Under Trump, US Sale of Medical Goods to Iran Down Nearly 40%

Under Trump, US Sale of Medical Goods to Iran Down Nearly 40%

With just two weeks until Trump reimposes secondary sanctions on Iran, administration officials are under increasing pressure to prove that the returning sanctions will not adversely impact humanitarian trade.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declared that “sanctions and economic pressure are directed at the regime and its malign proxies, not at the Iranian people.” But a review of US trade data shows that humanitarian exports from the US to Iran have withered under the Trump administration, lending credence to claims that while sanctions exemptions for humanitarian trade persist in principle, companies are struggling to avail themselves of these exemptions in practice.

In August, US exports to Iran surprisingly surged to nearly USD 150 million dollars, levels not seen since late 2008, when the Bush administration oversaw the sale of a significant volume of wheat to Iran, pushing monthly exports above USD 100 million for several months. The sudden increase in US exports to Iran was even reported upon by Iranian media outlets.

Looking into the content of those exports, just over USD 140 million dollars of the August trade is attributable to the sale of American soybeans to Iran, the number one destination for the crop that month. Due to Trump’s trade war, the export of soybeans to China has collapsed 95 percent, making commodities traders eager to offload supply to Iran.

But August’s sharp increase in exports to Iran remains exceptional for the Trump administration. Looking to data for the twenty months of the Trump presidency, a clear pattern emerges—along with overall trade, the export of humanitarian goods like food and medicine remains significantly lower than average monthly values registered during the Obama years.


Isolating humanitarian trade within United States Census Bureau export data can be done by analyzing twenty-one of ninety-nine standard “Schedule B” commodity codes, used to categorize trade in live animals, cereals, food oils, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices, among other goods that may fall under sanctions exempt or readily licensed trade.

Looking to the average monthly export value for goods in these categories, the Trump administration’s average of USD 15.4 million is actually about 6 percent higher than the monthly average of 14.5 million dollars registered during the Obama years. However, the Trump average is significantly distorted by the bumper trade in soybeans during July and August. When excluding these two months from the calculation of the Trump average, the monthly export value falls to just USD 7.1 million dollars, about half the level seen during the Obama years.

The significant decline in humanitarian trade is also evidenced by looking to the median monthly export value, which may better account for the natural volatility in US exports to Iran. In the 96 months of the Obama presidency, the median value of humanitarian exports to Iran was USD 9.4 million dollars per month. In the 20 months of the Trump presidency so far, the same figure has fallen to USD 5.8 million dollars per month, a 40 percent reduction.

The most regular kind of humanitarian trade between the US and Iran is the export of pharmaceutical goods. There was just a single month during the whole Obama presidency in which no exports of pharmaceutical products to Iran were registered. Likewise, pharmaceutical exports to Iran have so far been registered in every month of the Trump presidency. However, even in this routine trade, the Trump administration is falling short.

Under Obama, the United States exported an average of USD 2.1 million in pharmaceutical products to Iran each month. Under Trump, that monthly average export value has collapsed to just USD 720,000, a paltry one-third of the former level.

Importantly, in the last few years, the trade in medical devices to Iran has outpaced trade in pharmaceuticals, which may point to Iran succeeding in finding other suppliers of key medications while also boosting domestic production. The shift begins around March 2014, shortly after the January 2014 implementation of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA)—the precursor of the nuclear deal—in accordance with which the Obama administration began to expand secondary sanctions relief for humanitarian trade, including pharmaceutical exports to Iran. It is likely that European exports continue to offset the fall in American exports, including the reexport of American-made products from European divisions of American companies.

However, when adding medical devices and equipment into an overall calculation of exports of medical goods, the picture remains dire. During the Obama years, the US exported an average of USD 6.3 million in medical goods each month. In the first 20 months of the Trump administration, that figure has fallen to USD 4.6 million, a significant 37 percent drop.  


The decline of medical exports to Iran is unlikely to reflect falling Iranian demand. There were no exports of medical devices or equipment to Iran during the first nine months of the Trump presidency. But in October 2017, the same month when Trump “decertified” the JCPOA nuclear deal, exports of medical devices and equipment began again, and have recently reached the highest monthly level since 2015, despite the fact that the sharp devaluation of the real has made such imports much more expensive. Add to this the clear evidence from Iran that sanctions are beginning to result in shortages in key medicines and foodstuffs, and it is obvious that there remains significant scope for the Trump administration to expand its humanitarian trade with Iran.

It would seem that the Trump administration has reached a kind of crossroads when it comes to its strategy for humanitarian trade with Iran. It has publicly insisted that it will allow trade to flow and export volumes in the last few months are more consistent with the decade-long pattern of exports in food and medicine sustained by the US concurrently with the imposition of secondary sanctions.

At the same time, moves such as the recent sanctions targeting Parsian Bank, suggest that the administration is unwilling to send reliable signals to those companies and financial institutions engaged in vital humanitarian trade with Iran. Whether the administration will make good on its own reassurances and meet its moral obligation to facilitate humanitarian trade with Iran remains to be seen.

Photo Credit: IRNA

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