Prices of pharmaceutical drugs have skyrocketed in Iran amid plans by the cash-strapped government to cut a major subsidy.
Since the government of ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi first announced its plans in September, the cost of some essential drugs has more than quadrupled.
Prices are likely to surge further when the government officially cuts the subsidy, a prospect that has triggered alarm and anger in Iran. Many Iranians are already struggling to make ends meet in a decimated economy that has been crushed by crippling U.S. sanctions and years of mismanagement.
In 2018, then-President Hassan Rohani approved a subsidy that allocated billions in subsidized dollars for Iranian manufacturers to import essential food and medicine. The aim was to control prices even as the value of Iran's national currency tanked after the United States reimposed sanctions against Tehran. Critics said the subsidy led to corruption and failed to curb inflation.
But there are fears that the lifting of the subsidy will lead to Iranian drug companies hiking prices. While domestic manufacturers supply most of the country's drugs, much of the raw material used is imported. Iran also imports most drugs needed for the treatment of life-threatening conditions like cancer and heart disease.
"Medication is not something you can live without," a Tehran resident who did not want to be named told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "Many people may not be able to afford medicine anymore. But they will be forced to buy them at any price just to save their lives."
But there has been confusion over whether the government has already cut the subsidy.
Health Minister Bahram Eynollahi said on March 26 that Iranian manufacturers were no longer receiving subsidized dollars to import raw materials.
But just hours later, the head of the public relations office at the Health Ministry contradicted Eynollahi, saying a final decision to cut the subsidy had not been made.
On April 3, Bahram Daraei, the head of Iran's Food and Drug Administration, also said that the subsidy had not been eliminated.
Amid the confusion and uncertainty, the prices of essential drugs have continued to surge. That has led to speculation that the government has lifted the subsidy without informing the public.
A pharmacist told the Ensafnews news site that the price of some drugs had increased by 250 percent.
"The changes in prices are quite obvious," the unnamed pharmacist said in February. "It means that the subsidized currency for medicine has been quietly removed."
He suggested that profiteering was also behind the price hike.
"Recently, some individuals such as old men and women come to the pharmacy with fake prescriptions. They buy medicine and deliver them to those who collect them and sell them to pharmacies at several times the price," the pharmacist added.
In an interview with Radio Farda, another pharmacist in Tehran confirmed that prices for some drugs and medical supplies had soared in recent months. The price of an inhaler, he said, had increased fivefold.
Daraei admitted that the cost of drugs had increased by around 30 percent over the past year. He blamed the price hikes on budget cuts made by the Rohani administration and the trafficking of drugs to neighboring countries.
'Act of Mass Murder'
Iranians have expressed fear that the lifting of the subsidy could mean a death sentence for millions of people, making it virtually impossible for them to access potentially life-saving medications.
“This is [a deliberate] act of mass murder,” student activist Leila Hoseinzade said on Twitter in late March. “Patients in this country are the weakest [segment of] the population and they’re now being officially sent to the gas chamber.”
Iranians have witnessed rising prices and faced shortages of life-saving medicine -- including drugs for cancer treatment and insulin -- in recent years due to corruption and U.S. sanctions.
U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran exclude food and medicine. But in practice, the restrictions have made it difficult for Tehran to purchase some drugs, according to Human Rights Watch.