Further Sanctions Will Only Hurt the Youth of Iran

In the last few days, we have witnessed the enduring cast of “Iran Versus the West” strike their customary poses, relay their characteristic speeches and sound the forthcoming series of renewed confrontations. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated, with respect to its controversial nuclear program, that, "This nation won't retreat one iota from the path it is going." His comment came in response Western nations' announced plans for new sanctions to be put forth for consideration at the UN Security Council, with Alain Juppé claiming these to be "unprecedented in scale." Yet, while renewed economic and political sanctions may seem to be rational steps when dealing with a reactionary regime, in reality they only deeply impact the youth of Iran and not the regime itself.

Indeed, it is arguable that sanctions can never be successful and only affect the ordinary people of a targeted country. In fact, sanctions failed in Iraq, they failed in Sudan, they failed in North Korea, and they are failing in Iran, where they only strengthen the regime’s claim of a hostile West and dash the hopes of young Iranians. The news of the latest round of such sanctions being proposed will generate cries of frustration not from the regime, but from the homes of ordinary Iranians. This is not the effect that the international community — and specifically the West — should be seeking.

I arrived in Tehran in early November. As my plane taxied to its stand, I caught sight of a line of beat-up Boeing airplanes lying in the distance; they all bore the logo of the national carrier Iran Air. When I enquired how they come to rest there, I was told that lack of spare parts due to sanctions had caused them to become unsafe to fly and so they were taken to their final resting place, cannibalized for parts to allow the rest of Iran’s ageing air fleet to remain airborne. This was the first of many frequent reminders of the toll sanctions have taken on Iran.

Tehran is a sprawling city, clogged with traffic and chocked by pollution. Home to over 12 million people, Tehran is composed of high-rise apartment blocks, vast government buildings, and countless murals depicting the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomenei, as well as his successor Ayatollah Khamenei, men whose severe, expressionless images jostle for attention amongst the urban sprawl.

With the median age of Iranians currently being 26-years old, the majority of the population has been born into the Islamic Republic rather than the time of the Shah. This is of increasing importance in a country where the majority of young, middle-class Iranians seek to study in the U.S. or Europe, but are continually frustrated in these endeavours by sanctions and visa restrictions which make it hard for them to travel freely, increasingly causing them to question the regime's frequent international provocations.

Yet, far from desiring mass emigration, many young Iranians affirm a desire to return to Iran, post-studies, to improve their country. As one Iranian friend said, "The U.S. does not need one more doctor, but the Iranian people and Iran do." Indeed, Iranians have a deep-seated love of their country and culture, one that no young Iranian wants to forget or permanently leave.

However, increasingly, it it seems to Iranians that Western nations are more interested in punishing the regime than helping the Iranian youth gain the exposure and education vital to engendering domestic change. When asked whether this was frustrating, an Iranian acquaintance replied with a quote from a poem by Sohrab Sepheri, saying: “Life is living in the present, For life is excitement for a future which may never come.” Indeed, young Iranians can see why the West imposes sanctions on Iran but can never understand why they, the youth, are the ones who feel the brunt of these policies, and why the future they dream so often about may never come.

As my travels in Iran drew to a close, the reflection on my time in this beautiful, complex country began. It is now evident that the most striking aspect about Iran is the resilience and spirit its new generation have shown in the face of international isolation.

Young Iranians have incredible, deeply inspiring stories about life under an oppressive regime and restrictive sanctions, ones that show that the spirit of a nation so benighted by its regime has been categorically redeemed by its youth's dynamism and ambition. Sanctions will change Iran in the same way these young Iranians can; indeed, Western governments should seek to support, not hinder, the dreams and ambitions of young Iranians, for only in this way can a new Iran emerge from this cold winter into a springtime of its own.

Photo Credit: davehighbury

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Will Birch

Specialising in Maghreb affairs, William has lived and traveled throughout the MENA region.

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