By Scott Peterson Staff writer
Christian Science Monitor
First the wounded veteran, then the unpaid security guard, then the hungry child.
The powerful images of hopelessness came one after another, creating mounting waves of shock for Iranians who may have thought themselves inured to tales of desperation, destitution, and political angst.
Yet decades after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution seized power in the name of “social justice” for the poor and “oppressed,” and amid deepening economic collapse, Iran is battling a surge of suicides seen as a barometer of the ever-widening gap between the political leadership and society.
Accelerating a long-term trend, attempted suicides have leaped 23% in the past three months, marked by “chain suicides” and “more horrifying methods [carried out] before the public eye,” wrote sociologist Mohammad Reza Mahboubfar in the conservative Jahan-e Sanat newspaper.
Authorities say official statistics are only the “tip of the iceberg.” But calls to action have been galvanized by recent cases that appear designed to send dramatic messages of the need to ease despair.
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Within days last month, for example, three very public suicides gripped Iran, with graphic images going viral on social media as they added to the most recent annual toll of more than 5,000 Iranians taking their own lives.
In a dispute over a small loan, Jahangir Azadi, a wounded veteran of the 1980s Iran-Iraq War – an almost sacred category of citizens in the Islamic Republic – set himself alight in front of the offices of the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs in western Iran.
Days later, following late salary payments, Omran Roshani-Moghaddam, a security guard for an oil company, hung himself from crossbeams attached to a large metal tank in an oil field.
“I have nothing left to feed my family with, I have no bread to take home,” he had told his boss, according to co-workers in southwest Iran. The scene infuriated Iranians on social media for its stark contrast of utter poverty, explicitly juxtaposed against Iran’s immense oil wealth.
And days after that, 11-year-old Armin Moradi was buried after deliberately overdosing on drugs, pushed to the edge by “poverty, destitution, and disillusionment,” according to the Imam Ali Society of Students Against Poverty. In his home food was “basically non-existent,” with no trace of “dishes or spoons.”
“Message of revenge”
Those cases proved unsettling even for Iranians used to bad news, who have been buffeted by years of homegrown economic misrule, exacerbated by ever-more-staggering U.S. sanctions and now the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since late 2017, waves of angry protests against low and unpaid wages, soaring prices, and corruption have become a feature of Iranian life. So have the lethal crackdowns that have left hundreds dead.
“Hopelessness is the driving force behind almost all the attempted suicides I have been dealing with,” says a social worker in western Iran who asked not to be identified.
“The important point here is that the new cases are mostly meant to send a message of revenge against someone or something,” says the social worker, who has been trained in a government program to help others cope with suicidal thoughts.
“In the [veteran’s] self-immolation, the guy probably thought, ‘Well, by doing this I am ending my life, but at least I can send a bigger message to the whole country,’” he says. “The new suicides are becoming stronger symbols. They are not simply personal files. They represent macroscopic situations of desperation, which are increasingly crippling certain sections of the society.
“It is becoming an epidemic because those who follow suit feel like, ‘Yes, we can send the same message. ... At least we do something this way,’” adds the social worker. It’s about “causing some sense of guilt in a beloved person, a parent, a boss, but more importantly – and on a larger scale – the authorities in the ruling system.”
Iranian officials appear to be getting that message, up to a point.
The National Suicide Prevention Plan was announced in December by Ahmad Hajebi, a Ministry of Health director, who said it would expand research programs and reduce access to means of suicide. In February he told journalists, “We need to control the rising trend.”
Police announced last month that glass barriers would be installed on many platforms in Tehran’s sprawling subway system, to prevent people from throwing themselves in front of trains.
Already a suicide hotline – which officials credit with averting 8,500 deaths in 2017 alone – is in service. Police and other Iranian first responders also field teams trained to stop suicides, and large government charities conduct workshops on counseling tactics and suicide prevention.
But officials recorded 5,143 suicide deaths in the Iranian year that ended in March, an 8% increase over the previous year. The “growth rate over the past decade raises serious alarm” and requires action “with urgency and immediacy,” Masoud Ghadi-Pasha, a deputy director at the Legal Medicine Organization, said in late June.
In his report at that time, Mr. Mahboubfar, the sociologist, warned that “chain suicides” are a “wide-reaching tremor” that can quickly lead to “unrest more widespread than what we witnessed in recent years.”
That sentiment has echoed widely, especially amid a high-profile anti-corruption campaign that underscores for many how the Islamic Republic has strayed from its early days, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared: “Only those who have tasted poverty, deprivation, and oppression will stay with us to the end.”
The surge of poor people killing themselves over relatively small amounts of money comes “when there is talk of fraud cases in which we can’t even count the digits,” tweeted pro-reform journalist Ehsan Soltani. “Let’s keep these days in our minds, days when the call of the destitute fell on deaf ears [of leaders].”
That growing inequality has been especially felt by veterans, who occupy an elevated status in Iran but have seen their state-supported safety nets erode for years. Last summer and fall, in four separate incidents, three veterans and the son of a war “martyr” from the shrine city of Qom burned themselves to death.
The national narrative portrays them “not just veterans of a war, but actual defenders of the revolution. So when they open up their mouths and start critiquing in the ways they do, it can be pretty damning,” says Narges Bajoghli, an Iran expert at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington who notes that concerns about rising veteran suicides date back a decade or more.
“Part of it is that they don’t have the ability anymore to provide for their families,” a fact that has “created more and more anxiety and desperation,” says Ms. Bajoghli, author of “Iran Re-Framed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic.”
The result, she says, especially for disabled veterans, is there’s no choice but “to go out into the street and start begging – and that’s just not acceptable to them as a possibility, because of their role [as] defenders of the revolution.”
To Abbas Abdi, who was among the students who took American diplomats hostage in 1979, but later became a pollster and regime critic who spent time in prison, the suicides magnify a broader failure.
“There is no proper understanding of the dangerous potential as local officials are more concerned about ... fallout than tracing the roots of what led to those tragedies,” Mr. Abdi wrote in the reformist Etemad newspaper in mid-June.
He notes the irony of war veterans and “destitute laborers” committing suicide – despite a revolution carried out in the “name of the oppressed” – “at a time when others in the top echelons are abusing power and receiving whopping bribes. ... How could such a system claim lawfulness?”
That assessment is no surprise to one professional journalist in Tehran, who has recorded the deleterious impact of rising prices, and now the pandemic, on Iran’s social fabric.
“If you see a janbaz [“self-sacrificer” veteran] set himself on fire; if you see a worker hang himself in an oil and gas zone; it is a symbol of poverty and misery alongside wealth – a wealth that people believe is not spent on [them] and is sent to countries like Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine,” says the journalist.
“People are not happy in Iran. They have no hope for the future,” he says. “I think this number of suicides is a message to [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, the message that says, ‘We want to have a normal life and no more.’”
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The journalist recalls a conversation in a shared taxi last week, when the driver asked a young woman how she was doing.
“We are all dead,” the 21-year-old replied. “No job, no money, no fun, and no hope, so this is not life.”
Cartoon by Hassan Bleibel