Are economic sanctions a gentle way to put pressure on certain unfriendly states to change their ways, or they a subversive act of war?
On September 25th, 2018, President Donald Trump gave a speech to the UN in which he touted breaking the anti-nuclear deal with Iran as a pro-active move for Middle East peace and stability. Trump insisted U.S. sanctions against Iran are necessary to move the regime away from its agenda in Syria and Yemen. The present writer who lives in Iran under harsh economic conditions begs to differ.
By Mohamad Huseini*
Are economic sanctions human—are they a gentle way to put pressure on certain unfriendly states to change their ways, or are they a subversive act of war?
Walk through the streets of any city in Iran and all you hear about are the hardships that sanctions have brought to everyday life. From one day to the next, no one knows the price of basics. Standing in line at a bakery you hear people asking each other the cost of bread when they should already know the answer. After all, bread and rice are the staples of life and the cheapest way to fill the belly. Yet no one seems to know how he or she will manage to pay for a few pieces of bread or a kilo of rice.
The reason is the vertiginous falling value of the rial, the Iranian currency. Indeed, the burning question on everyone’s mind, all day long, is the value of the US dollar and the euro. As the price of the rial falls, the cost of basic goods go up. Walk past any pharmacy and you can’t help but hear complaints about the shortage of medication. There are people in every city and every village who spend their day going from one pharmacy to another in search of medication for their loved ones.
That’s when it hits you. You begin to wonder about the effects of these economic sanctions. While ordinary folks can’t even provide daily necessities, they observe those who are connected to the regime live a more privileged life. Who exactly, you ask, are these sanctions are suppose to hurt? Those who are privileged are able to get government currency at a steeply-discounted rate and conduct trade and business with companies they have set up in other countries, while ordinary folks have no such options. During the last US administration, we witnessed many factory owners go out of business as they were not able to purchase materials for their factories, hence could not produce and ultimately went bankrupt and as a result workers were laid off. Meanwhile “the privileged ones” not only have access to cheaper currencies, they are also able to protect their profits by sending them to other countries with more stable economies. While “the privileged ones” talk of nationalism and the stand against America and the West, they send their children to universities in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
All this hypocrisy has taken its toll on society. People have lost their trust in the face of the staggering economy and dubious leadership. In order to protect what they have left, they buy gold, euros and US dollars, which they secretly squirrel away in their homes. Whatever they have left they spend on goods to store, stocking up for the day when there is nothing left. As a result you’ll often find there are shortages of rice, cooking oil, flour and other necessities.
One morning you wake up and you hear there’s a diaper shortage, so everyone rushes out to get diapers, even though they don’t have any children but their neighbor or cousins may have kids. Men run to the store to buy tampons because their wife has told them tampons like one-horn rhinos are becoming extinct. Everything becomes valuable because tomorrow it may vanish.
Approximately a decade ago, president Ahmadinejad introduced government handouts to assist poor families and help out during economic hardships due to sanctions. These handouts were infamously called yarane. At the time those handouts were worth fifteen US dollars per month for each family member. So a family of five would receive seventy-five dollars per month. Today that yarane is worth three dollars per family member. So of course there are dark jokes flying not just on social media where identities are unknown but also on the streets. Yesterday I got in a taxi cab and the lady sitting in the back seat asked the driver if he would accept her yarane for the five-minute ride. Someone asked on social media whether he could purchase two pounds of grapes with his yarane.
So are sanctions working? If the goal was to hurt the average person on the street, yes, they are wildly successful. Will it influence the government to change its policies? That has yet to be seen, but don’t hold your breath. Meanwhile those whom the sanctions are intended to hurt are benefitting and those who are suppose to provide medication for their loved ones are prohibited from doing so. A whole new bootleg economy has arisen where fake medication is imported from countries like China and India who continue to trade Iranian oil in exchange for desperately-needed but low quality goods.
So to put it bluntly, the sanctions enforced by the Trump administration have caused more death, illness and hardship than any act of war. They have done nothing to hamper the “privileged ones” who control the Iranian economy and politics. Instead they have had and continue to have a direct and deleterious effect on the daily life of the average person on the street, who frequently wants to have nothing to do with politics.
It has to be said: the Trump administration has declared war on people who want to have nothing to do with war or politics. Clerics will continue to survive no matter what the US policy says, and they will continue to dictate our way of life whether anyone agrees with them or not. Tougher restrictions and more sanctions are yet to come and the only ones who are getting hurt by them are ordinary people.
The Iranian currency is losing its value by the day and inflation is breaking everyone’s back. Iranians will find a way to survive these dark days, but we ask ourselves when America will have a heart and end our hardships.
* a pseudonym for an Iranian and former Los Angeles resident who returned to his native land a few years ago and is toughing out a living despite the harsh realities that US sanctions impose on so many.