It is 2007, and I am an undergraduate at the University of Tehran. I’m very particular. I take notes with Staedtler Triplus Fineliner pens, in purple and green, and on this particular day I’ve run through the stash I keep in my desk at home. There is a small office supply store next to the university cafeteria, I’ve bought my pens there before. Before lunch I go to pick up some more Fineliners.
“We’re out,” says Farid, the young Kurdish boy who works in the store. “The supplier says there won’t be anymore at all.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“They say because of sanctions, but I’m not sure,” he says.
“Sanctions? What the heck do pens have to do with sanctions?” I ask, surprised.
He shrugs, his fatigued eyes sincerely puzzled.
Eight years later, things are a little clearer. In 2007, we were just entering what would become a period of intense deprivation, brought on by ever-tightening UN Security Council sanctions. It would become the worst disruption of Iranian life since the Iran-Iraq War of my childhood.
Now, what seems like a lifetime later, a nuclear agreement has been signed between Iran and the P5+1. We have been promised an end to the chokehold; a brighter future for Iran. We’ll see.
Sanctions have shaped my life since birth
Those of us born after the revolution have lived our whole lives under sanctions. Following the November 1979 takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, the United States imposed its first round of sanctions against Iran. Except for a brief period from 1981 to 1984, they have never been lifted. In March 1995, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order significantly expanding the scale of the embargo, preventing US companies from doing business with Iran.
But as difficult as these restrictions made the ’90s, life was still far easier than in the decade before — the Iran of my childhood.
When I was a child, long lines for basic goods were routine. Throughout the Iran-Iraq War (1980 to 1988), my parents bought everything, from bread to cheese to meat, using coupons. Even items like paper, erasers, or women’s nylon socks were often difficult to come by. When my parents married and moved into their first home in the early 1980s, basic household appliances were virtually impossible to find, as the combination of sanctions and war had brought both imports and domestic production to a halt. To get a refrigerator, my parents submitted their marriage contract to the neighborhood mosque, which took these contracts and tried to find necessary household supplies for new couples living in the neighborhood. I was born a few years later.
I was 4 years old before we had a phone. When I was 5 we finally bought furniture — a table and two chairs. Throughout the war we heard news of young boys perishing on the front lines, entire families wiped out by bombs. For a while, street bombings became frequent in our neighborhood, and when my father left home in the morning, my mother remained fearful till nightfall, uncertain if he would return.
“I was 4 years old before we had a phone. When I was 5 we finally bought furniture — a table and two chairs.”
But by the time I was a university student, the war was long over. Though sanctions persisted, Iranians had found loopholes and alternative means of getting what they needed. The worst of the deprivation was past. My classmates and I knew the hard life, we remembered it, but it had become a story, a tale for nights when we gathered around a dinner table we didn’t struggle to find.
Things were getting better. Then 9/11 happened.
I wouldn’t realize it until years later, but 9/11 was the day that a decade-long Iranian upswing began to fall apart. Despite the absence of Iranian involvement in the attack, the West steadily ramped up our isolation. When a secret uranium enrichment plant was discovered in Natanz in 2002, the isolation intensified. We were placed on George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” and then surrounded as the United States invaded Afghanistan to our east and Iraq to our west. In 2005, the conservative ex-mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, defeated reformers in a presidential election, and the world’s disdain came even harder.
It was difficult enough to deal with the changes he wrought at home. The university security staff we had been accustomed to — many of them young boys from the provinces — were replaced by stern-looking guards we’d never met. The cafeteria, where we had always sat down together to eat, was gender-segregated by a long blue curtain. We heard of professors being forced into retirement, and unknowns close to the administration taking up positions they were not fit for academically.
As students, it never felt as if Ahmadinejad represented us, but neither did we feel any affinity for the United States. It was Ahmadinejad who had brought a new security staff to our university. But it was America that had placed us under siege. We knew our nation’s shortcomings, but in many years of cafeteria debates, my peers and I could never justify how we’d been singled out, why the world seemed to simply not like us. We began to think of ourselves as “the unpeopled,” never seen by the outside world but living as we always had.
If anything, it seemed to us at the time that Ahmadinejad and Bush were similar — both, in language and deed, seemed to damage the prestige of their people in the eyes of the world. Yet the American president’s embarrassing behavior did not seal off his entire country from food and medicine. We paid Ahmadinejad no heed, but the international condemnation of Iran grew louder. At first we tried to focus on school, on grades, love, art, and life, but it was difficult. Some analysts claimed then and still claim now that the sanctions weakened Iranian support for the state, but that was never the whole story. It never felt true for my friends and me. If anything, we began to echo the state: Why the double standard for Iran?
Then our lives came to a halt. In 2006, our government refused to continue implementing parts of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, significantly reducing the inspection rights of International Atomic Energy Agency personnel in Iran. In December of that year — then again in March 2007, October 2007, and March 2008 — the United Nations Security Council retaliated by intensifying sanctions.
These new embargoes effectively closed the loopholes that had allowed Iranians to get by over the past 10 years. We were no longer able to purchase goods we could access easily before. Flights to Iran by international carriers were reduced or stopped entirely. Magazines that had survived against all odds were once again threatened by paper costs they could not afford. Iranian oil exports accounted for between 60 and 80 percent of the country’s revenue — suddenly, both Europe and the United States refused to buy.
The university security staff we had been accustomed to — many of them young boys from the provinces — were replaced by stern-looking guards we’d never met
Within our borders, strange men with almost no credible administrative experience tightened their grip on all sectors: the economy, the cultural space, even the heritage organization, a government body responsible for preserving historical sites. The reactionary policies of the Ahmadinejad administration coupled with the new, severe sanctions began to cripple us.
No one was spared under the new sanctions — not even cancer patients
The impact of the sanctions on academia alone has been devastating. All manner of vital technical equipment became scarce, while universities across the country were not permitted to renew their subscriptions to search repositories — even in the fields of medicine and the humanities. Coursera, a platform that offers free, open online courses, has become inaccessible within our borders. Our previous ability to conduct research and contribute to world scholarship was brought to a painful standstill.
While a portion of University of Tehran graduates typically remained in Iran to work, the new sanctions provoked a mass exodus: Almost no one chooses to stay after undergraduate studies. Doors seem to close all around us. Within months of my first disappointment in the stationery store, every writing and drawing tool I used disappeared off the market for good.
The impact of sanctions outside my academic bubble is far worse. Vitamins have become hard to find. My mother’s supplements disappeared off the market, as did tampons and foreign-made baby formulas. We went to drugstore after drugstore across the city but were told the same thing everywhere: The item you want is no longer being imported due to sanctions. My grandfather’s German-made eye drops vanished. The Iranian ones hurt his eyes.
More critically, vital cancer medication has become excessively difficult to get ahold of. Between 2011 and 2014, while visiting sick relatives, I met patient after patient in the hospital whose condition had become critical due to delayed treatment.
“What, they expect me to sell my house to buy medication? And then what will the family be left with if I die anyway?” asked a tall, silver-haired man I met one day. He had just started chemotherapy, months later than he should have. He died within weeks.
Almost like a joke, cancer rates appear to have climbed, as well. Some doctors blame new, low-quality domestic gasoline. While Tehran has always suffered from air pollution, we’ve begun to witness unprecedented levels — sometimes, looking over the gray-green haze that covers the city, it becomes impossible to breathe.
Iranian banks are cut off from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunications), effectively cutting off financial communication between Iran and other countries. The private sector has been hit badly. The textile and automobile industries have been especially affected, with many plants completely shutting down entirely. Across industries, obtaining spare parts or requesting maintenance for machines has become extremely expensive, in some cases impossible. Two of Iran’s main non-petroleum exports, handmade carpets and pistachios, have started piling up in basements.
All of this has sent the economy into free fall. The new sanctions led to unprecedented inflation, as high as 40 percent according to some estimates, which in turn caused a sudden spike in the price of basic commodities like milk and vegetable oil. Some crucial goods are available only on the black market, and there is no way — official or otherwise — to know how bad inflation has gotten there.
Perhaps you can imagine the 2008 American financial crisis to get a sense of what it was like — people’s financial holdings falling apart within days, years of careful savings wiped out. My parents spent the first decade of their marriage in a war zone and the next 15 years trying to build on lost time, making up for all those years of deprivation. Within the span of months, almost nothing remained of that effort. My mother’s clients went out of business; my father’s academic and industrial research has been severely disrupted.
“Perhaps you can imagine the 2008 American financial crisis to get a sense of what it was like — people’s financial holdings falling apart within days”
Over dinner, we talk about wartime. What it was like to live on rations. How life was lived with so little. We remember fondly our capacity for contentment, how we were all in it together.
This time it does not feel a group struggle. Under the sanctions, those who are savvy enough and amoral enough exploit others’ deprivation for a profit. They function as middlemen and brokers, preying on the needs and envies of citizens. These men become wealthy, but at the cost of ordinary people turning against one another, moral and social life coming apart. During the war, I could never have told my father to get me the same doll my classmate had — each of us already had, or didn’t have, the same things. But under sanctions, I have seen my uncles lambasted by their children because they didn’t pay the brokers for some flashy new toy their classmate got.
The nuclear deal has brought hope, but also uncertainty
In 2013, President Hassan Rouhani was elected with a mandate to stop this vicious cycle, to bring sanity and sustenance back to Iran. Despite monumental obstacles inside and outside of Iran, he has so far managed to deliver.
On July 14, 2015, a deal was announced between Iran and six world powers, including the United States. We were told that in exchange for a curtailment of our nuclear program and ongoing, rigorous inspections, the sanctions would finally be lifted.
I saw my grandfather that night. He lived through the occupation of his province during World War II, through the revolution, the war, and the sanctions years. When we discussed the news, he smiled, looking out into the distance. He read a poem: “We are but leaves dancing to a wind.”
On the night of the agreement, I drive the streets of Tehran, trying to feel what the city felt. Valiasr is known as the longest street in the Middle East — it traverses the city from north to south. Long sycamore trees once ran the length of the road, but now they only grow in Northern Valiasr, one of Tehran’s most affluent neighborhoods. This is where the crowds gather, the celebrations bringing traffic to a standstill. People are out of their cars, playing music, the sound of their whistles and applause rising above the trees in the dark.
We see luxury cars everywhere, more in one place than I’ve ever witnessed in Tehran before: Lexus, Mercedes, BMWs. But between them are the motorcycles of young boys who have come up from the working class neighborhoods of southern Tehran. They are easy to spot among the crowd. They wear stained T-shirts, probably smudged from a long day at work, and fake Nike shoes. As we drive south, the yelling, screaming, and happy crowds give way to the dead of night.
I have now lived three decades. I was born after a revolution, in the midst of a war. I have seen stability, I have seen chaos, I have seen bloodshed, I have seen calm, and all that lies between. Despite the agreement, we do not look forward to an uncomplicated era of plenty. Even if all goes according to plan, the legacy of sanctions cannot be erased. An economist I know from the University of Tehran put it this way: “Sanctioning a country like this is similar to permanently disabling a human being. You might stop inflicting harm, but the damage is there forever.”
I wonder if this is true. All that we are promised by this deal — more stability, a financial recovery, more open political and social space — we have had and lost before. Who can guarantee it won’t be lost again? Those of us who have seen the sinusoidal pains and recoveries of these past three decades know that much depends on the whims of a world far from our jurisdiction or oversight. We cannot make it bend, but it will bend us. For many Iranians, the end of sanctions is nothing more than the end of another chapter in a colossal, uncertain novel, still in production. You write as you live. You read as you go.
*Interview done by Afsaneh Salehi
*Written by Layla Jalili
*Special thanks to Mahsa Mohammadi for sharing her story with us