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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday expanded the list of medical devices that can be exported to Iran without special permission, as it seeks to show support for humanitarian needs in a country that has been hit hard by Western sanctions.
The United States and its European allies have tightened their economic sanctions on Iran to pressure the government to rein in its nuclear program, which the West suspects aims to produce a bomb. Iran says the program is for peaceful purposes such as generating electricity and making medical isotopes.
Iran's election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, last month has raised some hopes for a resolution of the long-running dispute over Iran's nuclear intentions.
U.S. officials have said they have tried to sanction Iran without unduly harming ordinary Iranians, granting licenses, for example, to U.S. companies that want to export pharmaceuticals, medical devices, food and other humanitarian goods to Iran.
But acknowledging the difficulties some companies still face, the U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday expanded the list of items that are permitted for export without a special application, adding devices like electrocardiograph and dialysis machines.
David Cohen, the Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the wider list should allow these medical supplies to get to Iranians more quickly.
"Safeguarding humanitarian trade is an important element of our policy (towards Iran)," Cohen said. "We will continue to apply powerful pressure on Iran while taking steps to ensure that we do not impact the humanitarian needs of the Iranian population."
Sanctions lawyers have said the blacklisting of Iran's major banks has made it extremely difficult to find smaller Iranian banks able to conduct licensed transactions for humanitarian goods, as well as international banks willing to deal with them.
Exports of U.S. pharmaceuticals to Iran were cut in half last year compared to 2011, a sign sanctions could be taking their toll on Iranians' access to basic medical supplies.
Government hospitals and pharmacies in Iran late last year also reported a widespread lack of drugs to treat cancer, multiple sclerosis, blood disorders and other serious conditions.
Cohen said the U.S. Treasury Department has met with many pharmaceutical and medical supply companies to explain how to work around sanctions.
Also on Thursday, the Treasury issued new guidelines clarifying that foreign financial institutions may process transactions for humanitarian goods without running afoul of U.S. law.
"We expect that today's actions... will ease lingering concern about the export to Iran of medicine and medical equipment," Cohen said.
The U.S. Treasury has said that Iran's government is largely to blame for any difficulty Iranians face in getting medical supplies, as the government gave its Health Ministry too little foreign currency to pay for medical imports.
Under U.S. sanctions, Iran's government can use the money it gets from oil imports to China, India and other buyers only for bilateral trade or humanitarian goods, including medical supplies.
Cohen said Iran has plenty of money for all the medical supplies it needs.
(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Doina Chiacu)