By Michael Shields and Humeyra Pamuk
ZURICH/WASHINGTON, Jan 30 (Reuters) – A humanitarian channel to bring food and medicine to Iran has started trial operations, the Swiss and the U.S. governments said on Thursday, helping supply Swiss goods to the struggling population without tripping over U.S. sanctions.
The Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA) seeks to ensure that Swiss-based exporters and trading companies in the food, pharmaceutical and medical sectors have a secure payment channel with a Swiss bank through which payments for their exports to Iran are guaranteed, a government statement said.
Three shipments of cancer and transplant drugs have already been sent to Iran through this channel and the transaction has been processed, U.S. Special Representative Brian Hook told a press briefing.
“It’s the first one, there will be more to come,” Hook said. “We have created a very high standard of due dilligence…It’s already met by one European company,” he said, adding that he has been talking with more companies interested to facilitate medicine and medical device shipments.
Food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are exempt from the sanctions that Washington reimposed on Tehran after U.S. President Donald Trump walked away from a 2015 international deal over Iran‘s nuclear programme.
But the U.S. measures targeting everything from oil sales to shipping and financial activities have deterred several foreign banks from doing business with the Islamic Republic – including humanitarian deals.
The project, in the works since 2018, kicked off with an initial payment for a shipment to Iran of cancer drugs and drugs required for organ transplants worth 2.3 million euros ($2.55 million), the government said.
Geneva-based bank BCP and drugmaker Novartis took part in the pilot deal, with the humanitarian channel expected to be fully operational within weeks, a spokeswoman for the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs said.
Swiss and U.S. officials had told Reuters last month that the channel could be up and running within months.
Politically neutral Switzerland has been working with U.S. and Iranian authorities and selected Swiss banks and Swiss companies on the plan. The U.S. Treasury Department will provide banks involved with assurances that financial transactions can be processed without violating U.S. law.
In return, exporters and banks will give the Swiss government detailed information about their business activities and partners in Iran. Bern will verify the information and share it with the U.S. Treasury.
“The successful completion of these transactions provides a model for facilitating further humanitarian exports to Iran,” the U.S. Treasury said in a separate statement.
($1 = 0.9014 euros)
(Reporting by Michael Shields in ZURICH; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in WASHINGTON; Editing by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi and Marguerita Choy)