For about 10 days, I have been in Tehran visiting family. In my short time here, I have already heard about and seen the painful consequences of sanctions.
Sanctions against Iran are doing great harm to an economic system that ordinary Iranians rely on to make a living, and are also indirectly increasing health and safety risks. Iran’s new president continues to express his desire for direct talks with the United States, most recently with the Iranian parliament’s confirmation of Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad-Javad Zarif. Many Iranians are hopeful that America and Iran will sit down and repair relations.
Recently I boarded an Iranian plane leaving Tehran en route to the beautiful city of Mashhad. Soon after I boarded, I was curious how old the aircraft that I was on was. I soon learned that it was part of a substandard Russian fleet that dates back about 40 years. The Iranian people deserve safety, but sanctions are eroding that universal right.
Sanctions have restricted Iran from purchasing new airplanes, or even in some cases, from buying essential parts to ensure the safe operation of aircraft. President Clinton first put these sanctions, which were originally separate from the more recent sanctions aimed at halting Iran’s nuclear program, in place in 1995. Ever since then, grave damage has been done to Iran's fleet of aircraft. Captain Shahbazi of Iran Air was operating a flight last October when his landing gear failed to dislodge, causing him to crash-land his plane. After Shahbazi landed the airplane safely, he began a campaign to reverse these sanctions which he says have resulted in many plane crashes and more than 1,700 deaths.
Iranians, who were once hopeful about President Obama, have been increasingly frustrated with America for creating these conditions, blaming the American government more than they blame their own. As one of my friends living in Tehran speculates, sanctions are having the opposite effect of that intended — they're driving Iranians closer to their government.
The United States and international community insist that the sanctions are meant to curtail uranium enrichment that could be used to create a nuclear bomb, which the Iranian government vehemently denies, insisting the program is solely for civilian purposes. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has said repeatedly that all options are on the table with respect to Iran, and the Congress continues to pass restrictive sanctions, including a new set of sanctions passed recently by a vote of 400-20 in the House. If these sanctions were to be adopted, Iran would further be restricted in the number of barrels of oil it can export.
Meanwhile, the Iranian people continue to face many challenges as a result of sanctions. My uncle claims that the cost of electricity has easily doubled since the last time I visited over two years ago. Earlier this summer the inflation rate was estimated at 32%, but has since been adjusted to 45% as the economy continues to decline. Further, Iran’s foreign currency holdings are declining by about $15 billion USD annually.
Basic commodities like food, medicine, and clothes have become very expensive. Because foreign currency holdings are few and far between, the Iranian rial has been losing its value at unprecedented levels. The cost of a new imported car in Iran in Iranian currency costs about three times as much as it used to just 2 years ago as the Iranian currency continues to lose its value. I spoke to a doctor who said that medical equipment is becoming hard to access and very expensive. He says that a respirator is costing much more than it did because it has to be imported. He argues that these hardships have led to an increase in healthcare costs.
The Iranian people, in other words, are the direct victims of the sanctions. One friend says many people struggle to eat whole meals, and some go without eating meat for months. About half the urban population lives below the poverty line.
The U.S.-led sanctions are beneficial to certain countries including the United Arab Emirates and China, who combined comprise about 30% of Iran’s total imports. One of my friends who is a manager at a factory in Tehran says that because of the sanctions Iran is relying more heavily on imports, as they do not have access to infrastructure or materials to produce goods on their own.
Because Iran earns most of its revenue through the sale of oil, slashing the number exports also means less money in government coffers. Because of Iran’s oil revenues, the government has been able to keep taxes relatively low, but many expect an impending tax hike or other measures to increase revenues. Despite all this, I sense that Iranians are still remarkably optimistic and hopeful that their future will be bright. The people of Iran have a rich history and culture from which much pride is generated, they will not tolerate falling behind in this world.
It is important that the United States consider the adverse affects sanctions have on ordinary Iranians. While there is great concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, sanctions require more oversight. With Iran’s new president in particular, there is a new opportunity that I feel hasn’t been seized fully, especially with the U.S. House of Representatives’ recent vote to add more sanctions. The people elected Hassan Rouhani in a landslide victory with a mandate to improve the economy and improve foreign ties. After 30 years of severed diplomatic ties, this mandate to improve a failing economy could prove to be the perfect opportunity to repair damaged relations. Sanctions are preferred to war, but diplomacy is better than both. Iranians are ready to talk.