In the face of US sanctions and corrupt ideologues, Iranians get by on defiance

by Peter Calder / 21 November, 2018
Tehran’s millions pursue vices with exuberant abandon. Photo/Getty Images

Tehran, Iran. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Iran US sanctions defiance

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, Peter Calder finds almost everything is forbidden, yet accessible. 

In Iran, entering a roundabout is an undertaking of knuckle-whitening implausibility. The rule, if you can call it that, seems to be that the traffic already on the roundabout gives way to traffic entering it. More likely, no one and everyone gives way all at the same time. Somehow it seems to work.

As a passenger in a range of stop-start vehicles during a month I spent in the country in September, I found the driving an apt metaphor for the way the place runs. There are rules, and some – speed limits and seat-belt requirements – are even observed, but most things seem to happen in spite of them.

“In Tehran, everything is forbidden,” Ahmad told me. “And everything that is forbidden you can get.”

Ahmad was one of several young men I met who were happy to play guide for a few hours in exchange for my correcting their English. His name is not really Ahmad – you can’t be too careful in protecting those who talk to you – but the story he told was a familiar one. Iran – correctly the Islamic Republic of Iran – is a hypermoralist theocracy in which pornography, prostitution, alcohol, drugs, YouTube, Facebook, and much else besides, is banned, on pain of imprisonment, and corporal or even capital punishment. Yet the population accesses all of them with a quietly exuberant abandon. Defiance, indeed, is the currency of daily life.

Nasir al-Mulk mosque in Shiraz. Photo/Getty Images

Since the revolution (which marks its 40th anniversary in February) that deposed the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country has been under the control of two “supreme leaders” in succession: Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei followed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who returned from exile in Paris in 1979 to establish the Islamic Republic. There is a president and a legislature, both nominally elected, but nothing, including the presidential and ministerial appointments, occurs without the Supreme Leader’s say-so. As the PBS show Frontline reported, Iran is the only state in which the executive branch does not control the armed forces.

And the day-to-day experience of Iranians makes it plain that the ideologues who run the country prize social control based on the principles of Shia Islam ahead of economic prosperity. In particular, and despite some progress in the past decade, women are disproportionately oppressed, and labour under great disadvantage in regard to access to education, employment and the remedies of civil law. The hijab – a head-covering scarf – remains obligatory, even for tourist women.

Meanwhile, the basij, a volunteer auxiliary corps of young men recognisable by their neatly trimmed beards and black clothing, enforce internal security, police morals (they question couples walking together to establish the legitimacy of their relationship) and suppress dissidents and protest gatherings.

A woman arrested for her inappropriate clothes. Photo/Getty Images

A woman arrested for her inappropriate clothes. Photo/Getty Images

Islam trumps prosperity

The regime clings to power that everyone I spoke to deeply begrudges. It’s fair to note that conversations between a short-stay visitor and a self-selected sample (of people who speak English) scarcely constitute a scientific survey, and support for the leadership is stronger among (mainly provincial) religious conservatives. But the frequency and passion of public opposition were striking.

If freedom is in short supply, so are prosperity and happiness. Clerical and secular rulers collude in a cynical kleptocracy: a 2014 Reuters investigation assessed Khamenei’s net worth as US$95 billion. Meanwhile, ordinary Iranians, rich, middle-class and poor alike, suffer in stagnating economic conditions that worsen by the day, and imported goods, from medicine to disposable nappies, have become ludicrously unaffordable.

The exchange rate of the Iranian rial is soaring: the US dollar, worth IRR43,000 in international markets, was fetching 120,000 in early September and 140,000 by the end of the month. A grim joke doing the rounds asked what the dollar is worth. “Do you mean now, now or now?” was the punchline answer. Not since I was in Argentina in the 1970s have I experienced an exchange rate so grotesquely advantaging the visitor as it hammered the locals.

US sanctions, imposed after the revolution, were relaxed by the Obama administration after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, aka “the nuclear deal”) in July 2015, under which Iran dismantled much of its nuclear programme and international inspectors were given extensive access to monitor compliance. But in May, US President Donald Trump pulled out of the multilateral deal, against the urgings of the European Commission, which has openly distanced itself from the White House’s move.

Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei. Photo/Getty

A revived sanctions programme, partially implemented in August, was stepped up last week, and will now apply to oil and petrochemical exports from the energy-rich country. Iran produces 5% of the world’s oil, and energy revenue constitutes as much as 60% of GDP, so the impact will be keenly felt. The cost of some medicines, for instance, which had already trebled in recent months, were last week reportedly already getting further out of reach.

But it is hard to imagine that it will make everyday life worse than it already is. Travelling through the country, I talked to dozens of Iranians – from a mathematics professor, an IT consultant and an architect to waiters and young men paid a pittance to inveigle tourists into carpet shops – and not one expressed more than passing interest in the effects of US policy.

A study by the University of Maryland’s Centre for International and Security Studies, published in July, found that 96% of Iranians want the government to do more to fight financial and bureaucratic corruption and almost two-thirds thought that domestic economic mismanagement and corruption have greater negative effects on their county’s economy than sanctions have had or will have. They were openly sceptical of the sincerity of Trump’s offer to negotiate with the regime.

To a man – engaging a woman in conversation, at least in public, is no easy task, though women whose English was good spoke freely behind closed doors – they blamed the country’s ills on the obsessive and corrupt ideologues in charge in Tehran, rather than the players in the stranger-than-fiction Washington farces. Indeed, many welcomed the idea of stepped-up sanctions as the only likely way a change of government might be effected.

An American flag is set alight this year on the anniversary of the November 4, 1979, seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. Photo/Getty Images

An American flag is set alight this year on the anniversary of the November 4, 1979, seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. Photo/Getty Images

Jafar, who runs a guest house in a large provincial city, sneered as he made a circle shape above his head to signify the Shia turban that is the signature headwear of the ruling imams. “Our government does not care about the people, but only about themselves,” he told me. “They spend more time worrying about whether women wear the hijab correctly than about education or healthcare.”

Thus Islam is more than a religion; it is a tool of state control. Most Iranians (particularly in urban areas) are not devout, or even practising, Muslims, but admitting as much is fatal to employment prospects.

“When you apply for a job,” one English teacher told me, “there is a space on the form for you to say what your religion is. But if you write anything other than ‘Muslim’, you will not get the job, and if you are not Muslim, you will not get promotion, no matter whether you deserve it.

“So, from the first day you take a job, your life is built on a lie. And once you have told one lie, a second lie becomes necessary and then a third lie, and then, well, you don’t even notice you are lying any more.”

A Tehran drugstore. Photo/Getty Images

A Tehran drugstore. Photo/Getty Images

Warm welcome

This picture of a society both depressed and repressed is belied by the sunny nature of street-level experience of life in the Islamic republic. Nowhere in the world will a traveller encounter a warmer, more hospitable welcome from people who will gladly give you everything they have, even when they have nothing. When I asked a pavement trinket-seller to point me to a cafe for a glass of tea, he unhesitatingly poured for me the last sips from his grubby vacuum flask. Walking on streets through which wafted the scents of mint and saffron and grilled meat, I would be accosted, hourly at least, with “What’s your country?” (“Newzealand”, with the stress on the last syllable, always excited approval) and “Welcome to Iran, please have a happy journey here”.

Taxi drivers and merchants never tried to overcharge me even when, in the first days, I was bamboozled by the numerical unmanageability of the currency, in which the word “million” occurs regularly: 500,000 rials – about $5 – is called “50” (it is 50,000 tomans, a toman being 10 rials). After several times tendering an amount that was wrong by an order of magnitude, I began routinely opening my wallet and inviting shopkeepers to help themselves, which they would do with meticulous care, laying out the banknotes to demonstrate the accuracy of their arithmetic.

Iranians have good reason to feel grim about climate change. Their country, bookended to north and south by the Caspian Sea and the Persian (never Arabian) Gulf respectively, is, in its centre, a vast plateau, classified by geographers as semi-arid, but now as dry as the Oklahoma Dust Bowl the Joads fled in The Grapes of Wrath.

Once-verdant land in Iran. Photo/Getty Images

Once-verdant land in Iran. Photo/Getty Images

The valley in which lies the fabled city of Shiraz, where the grape that takes its name was first cultivated, was once verdant and bountiful. Now it is a clay-grey expanse of dusty stubble on which goats graze.

“This was once full of vegetables,” said the taxi driver who took me to the ruins of the 2500-year-old city of Persepolis, waving towards the rocky, empty fields. With the help of Google Translate, he explained that there had been no decent rain for 16 years.

“Will rain soon?” he asked, as if my Western education in modern languages might fit me to predict the fate of a warming planet. “I have a hectare of agricultural land, but I get no income from it because there is no water. There was once fruit in Shiraz at every season, but now fruits are very expensive. Trump says he will not take our oil, but we are already dying here.”

A carpet shop in Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz. Photo/Getty Images

A carpet shop in Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz. Photo/Getty Images

All about the midterms

Few doubt that Trump’s tearing up of the JCPOA and renewed sanctions had more to do with seeking electoral advantage in the midterms than on any sense of geopolitical mission. But the new round is bound to have a destabilising effect and those in Iran whose level of resentment towards the regime has transformed their fatalism into tremulous optimism may need to be careful what they wish for

In a July article in Foreign Policy magazine, Michael Axworthy, a longtime Iran-watcher, warned that regime change in Iran would be a disaster for everyone.

“Destabilising Iran would be like shaking up a kaleidoscope and hoping to get a Titian,” he wrote. “It is far from clear that the outcome would be better than what we have now.”

This article was first published in the November 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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