Cartoon by Rick McKee
I lived in an Iran under sanctions. Here’s what it’s like.
The Washington Post: This weekend, new U.S. sanctions on Iran’s economy will go into effect. The Trump administration promises they will be the most punitive in history. The ones that President Barack Obama placed on Iran in 2012 were already among the stiffest by any country in modern times.
I lived in Tehran then and reported extensively on the impact the sanctions had.
If that experience is a predictor of what is about to hit the people of Iran, here’s a preview of what ordinary Iranians can expect in the weeks and months ahead.
The rial, Iran’s national currency, is already in a free fall, standing at about a third of the value against the dollar that it held at this time last year. It will likely get much worse.
That means Iranians’ already diminished spending power will become even more hampered, further corroding their quality of life.
Although sanctions won’t target food and medicine directly, Iran will be cut from the international financial system, so imports for many items will be affected, causing delays in delivery. People needing certain lifesaving drugs will have to cross borders to buy their medicine — if they can afford it — on the black market. People who might otherwise live normal lives with the aid of their medications will needlessly die.
The market for human organs — already thriving — will certainly explode, especially for kidneys. In tough times, if you have two of something, selling one of them might be your best and only option.
While Iran’s incompetent leaders will make ridiculous claims that sanctions provide the opportunity for a “resistance economy” — that’s revolutionary-speak for boosting domestic production — the reality is that native industries will suffer. Agriculture, textile making and auto manufacturing will be hit particularly hard.
Farming in most countries, including Iran, requires imported technology. Getting those tools will become increasingly difficult as making purchases of foreign goods will be greatly prohibited. Iran’s rug-weaving industry, widely considered the pinnacle of that craft with an estimated 2 million employees, will be decimated beyond repair.
There will be shortages on many nonessential goods that Iranians have grown accustomed to consuming, the sorts of things that can make one feel like a normal person: foreign snacks such as Nutella and Kit Kat bars, make-up, clothes, electronics.
Soon enough, well-connected officials and their families with access to the black markets will begin importing and selling goods at exorbitant prices, callously taking advantage of the misfortune that their cronies in government helped create.
That small but not inconsequential segment of the population will see its wealth balloon as it did in 2012 and 2013. There will be a disproportionate number of the most expensive luxury cars on Earth sitting in Tehran’s perpetual traffic.
These individuals will be at once cursed and admired by the common man. A life of good deed and honest work is no longer deemed virtuous or worth it in Iran. Only fools don’t try to take advantage of those weaker than them.
Although the U.S. travel ban is an established fact that specifically and most aggressively targets Iranians — the very people the U.S. government claims to be wanting to help — Tehran will be filled with hucksters promising exit strategies, green cards and get-rich-quick opportunities. Despair breeds dreamers like nothing else.
Because Iran won’t be able to sell its oil at anything like the rate it is now, it won’t be able to produce gasoline. In a country where cheap fuel and access to easy transportation are not only considered a birthright but also a key employer, the government will be forced to produce very-low-quality gas in its substandard petrochemical facilities.
This will in turn lead to a decline in air quality in some of the already most polluted cities in the world.
Maybe the regime in Tehran will quietly crumble tomorrow — wouldn’t that be nice? — but more likely it will press forward, doing little to address the very legitimate concerns of its people just to defy Washington. It has been doing so for 40 years.
Just as Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and many other anti-U.S. regimes manage to limp along for years, Iran’s ruling class is similarly stubborn. It’s true that protests have picked up steam in recent months and spread throughout Iran, but they aren’t the type that peacefully topple a system that has all the guns.
The struggles of surviving daily life will make political organizing more of a challenge than it already is. The protests are still not anything like a mass movement. They are the legitimate and disparate demands of people living under the weight of immense pressure. Women want the same rights as men, workers want their back pay, many citizens don’t have access to water, religious minorities are persecuted. The list goes on.
Social media has become Iranians’ sole outlet of expressing these frustrations, and these channels, too, will likely become even more stifled. People with large followings on platforms such as Instagram are already being arrested. Internet speeds will be reduced, and cellphone service could be cut for extended periods as they were during previous times of unrest.
Small businesses that have thrived in Iran’s unique climate will fold. Drug addiction, which is rampant in Iran, will likely increase. The general malaise of a society living under the perpetual darkness caused by being marked a pariah nation will only worsen.
The next time an “Iran expert” tells you that he supports the most crushing sanctions on the regime because they are the best way to support the Iranian people, be sure to ask him the last time he lived through something like this.