The United States of Sanctions
The Use and Abuse of Economic Coercion
Holiday shopping in Tehran. (Morteza Nikoubazl / Courtesy Reuters)
It was Christmastime in Tehran, and forecasters were predicting another early snow. On a cold day last December at the bazaar in Tajrish, the wealthy historic neighborhood in northern Tehran, shoppers avoided the exposed alleyway stalls and instead headed for the warmth of the nearby mini-malls, which were as overheated as any in the United States. Inside one, kids gathered around the window of a Christmas shop to gaze at the ornaments and plastic Santas inside. A few other shops also had Christmas decorations -- perfectly legal in the Islamic Republic, even if the religious authorities frown on them. Christians are free to celebrate as they wish -- there are even Christmas trees for sale on the sidewalks in the Armenian neighborhoods of Tehran.
The decorations contrasted sharply with the thousands of black and green "Ya Hossein" flags fluttering outside virtually every street-side shop, celebrating Shia Islam's Imam. There were the vans and cruisers of the Gasht-e Ershad, the morality police, who guard Persian society from sartorial affronts to Islam. This year they extended their unwelcome presence well into the winter months (they normally appear in the spring, when coats come off for the season, and are gone by the early summer), lest a stray strand of hair poke from underneath a woman's scarf, or, worse yet, her coat not quite reach her knees.
So it was Christmas, but it was also Moharram, the Arabic name for the month in which Hossein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and patron saint of Shias, was martyred in Karbala. It is the most holy month for Shias, celebrating as it does their most venerated saint, whose martyrdom is their very raison d'être. As some Iranians went about their daily business, shopping for food and household items, the more pious attended mosques for mourning ceremonies -- rites that for hundreds of years nothing, not even international crises, revolutions, or the winds of war could prevent, much less interrupt. And this year Iran indeed faced a mounting international crisis. Over the last year, the West had ratcheted up pressure to combat the country's nuclear program, but still, its virulent rhetoric, increased sanctions, and even covert action had not changed Tehran's plans.
I lived in Tajrish for most of 2011. A few days prior to my December stroll in the bazaar, mobs attacked the British embassy in downtown Tehran. They also stormed its park-like Qolhak Garden compound, a short cab ride from where I was staying. The attack aired live on state TV -- itself an indication that state media had advance notice, making the siege the talk of the town for a few days.
Many, both abroad and in Iran, had assumed that the government was behind the attacks. And Iranian politicians (with the glaring exception of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) stopped short of praising the mobs but sparred for a few days, eager to outdo one another with their revolutionary credentials -- this, of course, being an election year in Iran. But the mob's ignorance of world affairs, and therefore probable lack of sponsorship at the highest levels of government, quickly revealed itself in the anachronistic graffiti it scrawled on the embassy's walls: "Down with Elizabeth."
(To add a bit of context, it's worth noting that one anti-regime Iranian said to me the day after the attack that he thought the British themselves were behind the assault. So obvious, he thought, because it would validate their actions in sanctioning Iran's central bank. That, plus the fact that the British control the mullahs anyway, he said. Logic be damned, in conspiratorial Persia.)
The ransacking of the British embassy capped an annus horribilis for the Iranian leadership. Throughout the year, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and every politician in between have seemingly been at odds with each other over just about every possible matter of state. The result is an uncertainty and nervousness among officials, and a kind of political paralysis in which it has become hard for people to know exactly who is in charge, or even whom to blame for policy gone bad. But it was also a terrible year for the Iranian people. They are baffled by the West's approach to dealing with their country's nuclear program -- the stated aim is a change in policy, but the result is only general hardship. Big-city dwellers complain about rampant inflation, a strangled economy, and general inconvenience on a daily basis.
On the street, nowhere is the impact more evident than at any one of the many foreign exchange bureaus where Iranians gather to monitor the flat screens that show the almost minute-by-minute slide in the rial. Men and women gather at the kiosks to buy dollars as a hedge against crippling inflation; many think that the government will soon run out of greenbacks as international sanctions clinch Iranian banks. The country's financial culture is cash -- there are no credit cards -- and the government routinely pumps hundred-dollar bills into circulation in an effort to keep the currency stable. The strategy has backfired. By the end of last year, confidence that the regime could withstand international financial pressure -- particularly after the British government cut all financial ties with Tehran -- had sunk to an all-time low.
By December, escalating talk of military strikes, promoted by respectable Western and Israeli politicians, analysts, and commentators -- in the pages of this journal, too -- raised anxieties in Tehran to a level not witnessed in many years. In years past, war over the nuclear program had always been the subject of chatter in Iran, but few took it very seriously. In fact, if war came up in ordinary conversation, it was mentioned jokingly. In December, however, my optician, an older Isfahani with a wry sense of humor who hosts a salon of sorts with locals every evening in his shop, captured the mood of the city when he said of the worry over a coming war, "You can smell it," he said. "This time, you can smell it."
If you live in Iran it is hard to imagine what the West, particularly the United States, is trying to accomplish. No one doubts that Israeli and Western operators are behind recent assassinations of nuclear scientists on the streets of Tehran. And the sudden frequency of "accidents" at various factories and Revolutionary Guards bases (which a majority -- their government's denial notwithstanding -- also believe are the work of foreign agencies) has done nothing to change the minds of either government officials or the general public about the nuclear program.
Few in Iran believe that the nuclear program is a quest for a Shia bomb to obliterate Israel once and for all. No, the Iranian people, from my greengrocer to college students who resent their government, still consider the nuclear question in generally nationalistic terms. The particular regime in power is of passing relevance. So sanctioning Iran's central bank and embargoing Iranian oil, tactics the White House may be using as a way to avoid having to make a decision for war, will neither change minds in Tehran nor do much of anything besides bring more pain to ordinary Iranians. And making life difficult for them has not, so far, resulted in their rising up to overthrow the autocratic regime, as some might have hoped in Washington or London.
What, then, of an Iranian opposition? To the dismay of those same people (and many diaspora Iranians), the Arab Spring has not arrived on Persian shores. In fact, it is unlikely to do so anytime soon. Not because Iranians wholeheartedly love their regime -- certainly not all of them do. Nor because the regime has been brutally successful in crushing any dissent -- which, of course, it has. Crowds may gather around exchange bureaus, but a currency problem (or perhaps, even a real fiscal problem) will not incite another Iranian revolution.
Many in the West still refer to the opposition as the Green Movement, as the street protests responding to the 2009 election came to be known, based on opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi's official campaign color. But the Green Movement no longer exists. Only in the Western media does wearing a green scarf, or anything green, for that matter, get you arrested in Iran. There is no "green wave" ready to crest. Talk of a "green" opposition, in fact, is pure nonsense.
Even if some young people can be bothered to show their disdain for their government, it isn't a sign that they are waiting to rise up in revolt, or that they support one or another of the reform or opposition figures. In Tehran it's a sign of their general defiance of authority -- the same defiance that is apparent in the face of harassment by the morality police: women still wear their scarves loosely, they still wear revealing attire, and they style their hair any way they wish. They wear their jeans and sneakers, and they live their lives as if the Islamic restrictions on behavior and style were recommendations rather than absolute law (much as they seem to view traffic regulations in Tehran -- simply as inconvenient intrusions into personal freedom).
It is perhaps most telling (and even astonishing) that ten months into the house arrest of the two leading Green figures, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, virtually no one in Iran seems to care about their fate, nor even the fate of many of the opposition figures still in prison.
There are, of course, a number of different Iranian groups who are opposed to the political system or to the government's human rights abuses, but the ones looking to overthrow the regime through revolution have withdrawn. After the failure of the Green Movement, some simply gave up and are now fatalistically (a strong trait among Persians) resigned to a system that they cannot change. They complain loudly, but are inactive otherwise. Consider the old man standing next to me recently at a bus stop one evening during rush hour, who yelled at the bus driver for closing the doors when his vehicle could no longer accommodate a single additional passenger. "This is what happens," he screamed, leaning on his cane within earshot of the traffic police, "when a akhound-e do-zaree (two-bit mullah) becomes the Supreme Leader!"
There are those who cling to the idea of reform from within and are hoping that leaders such as former President Muhammad Khatami, or even former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, can still effect change. There are those who despise the system, or despise the government, but are doing well economically -- there are more Porsche Panameras in Tehran, it seems, than in Manhattan, and at three times the price -- and would rather nothing change. (At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum there are those, and they are many, who are simply too busy trying to make a living, sometimes working three jobs, to spend time caring very much about politics. Curiously enough, the United States faces a similar problem.)
There are those who support the pragmatic conservative politicians, such as Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the popular mayor of Tehran. And there are, of course, those who support Ahmadinejad and his aides, more now, it seems, that they have taken on the political system. One acquaintance, a young man who voted for Mousavi and is desperate for change but is still highly religious, told me that he would "vote for Mashaei tomorrow, if he were allowed to run for president." Esfandiar Mashaei is Ahmadinejad's closest aide, socially liberal and the bête noir of hard-liners, and has been accused of everything from sorcery to corruption and apostasy.
But virtually none of these Iranians believe that revolution is imminent, or, for that matter, even desirable. Iranians inside Iran recognize that the regime, the Supreme Leadership, and the concept of an Islamic Republic still enjoy some support (however difficult it may be to quantify). The religious classes, branches of the military, and those in rural areas might be very much opposed to the status quo, but actively support the regime, as they define it. Like everywhere else in the world, most Iranians worry about their pocketbooks, and the economy is what they want to see improve more than anything else.
And most Iranians inside Iran would support the nation -- even the regime -- should foreign forces initiate aggression against their country. Khatami, who still enjoys the residual affection of many reform-minded Iranians for his principled stand on human rights, political prisoners, and the need for a more democratic system, said as much in December as the "smell" of war wafted over Tehran. (It wasn't just my optician.) In case of war, Khatami said publicly, we Iranians are all united. Galloping Middle Eastern regime-change bandits such as Ahmed Chalabi, hawkish American politicians, and exiles keen on regime change from the outside would be wise to listen. Those same people would also be wise to recognize what Iranians seem to instinctively know -- that Shia clerics are ultimately survivors; they are not suicidal, whether they hold power or not.
In December I sat down with Khatami for tea at his office, a confiscated mansion that once belonged to a former high official of the Shah's regime and loaned to Khatami by the Khomeini family. It is heavily monitored by the intelligence agencies. As we discussed the political scene, he reminded me that most Iranians didn't know who Mousavi, the presidential candidate responsible for the Green Movement, was until he threw his support behind him. Perhaps to assert his own relevance (although he denied that he had any), but more likely as confirmation of what I already had surmised, Khatami noted that the Iranian opposition has no real leader, and that the West should not be deluded into thinking that change could be effected from without. Further, even considering the widespread regional revolt of 2011 and pressure from outside, thinking that Iranian reformists could or would replace the existing system with one more to the liking of the liberal democracies of the West is simply foolish.
Predicting the future in Iran is a fool's game, as the country and its people have defied expectations for years. But with continuing political turmoil among conservatives, pressure from the West, parliamentary elections in March, and the almost complete crushing of the reformists, it seems that this year promises to be another annus horribilis for both the leadership and the people. Neither Ahmadinejad nor the conservatives who oppose him are strong enough to shake up the system, and neither side is so weak that it will completely lose any influence, through elections or otherwise. A crisis should never go to waste, so it's said. But the perpetual predicaments of last year seem to have taught Iranians, as well as the world that pressures them, precious little.
The tenth day of Moharram is known as Ashura, and it was then, two years ago, that the regime vanquished the Green Movement. Dissident leaders called for street protests on the most holy day in Shia Islam, thousands poured into the streets, and the day ended as one of the most violent in what might today be called the Persian Spring of 2009. But what came after was more important. The regime painted the Green Movement as anti-Islamic, as insensitive to the sensibilities of a people who believe that the sanctity of Ashura should not violated. The argument that Ashura not be the venue for political disputes (although the celebration of Ashura is in itself the celebration of a political dispute of 1,400 years ago) was easily bought by the pious.
On this most recent Ashura, a few days after my Tajrish trek, black uniformed security forces were out in force in Tehran, swarming Vanak Square, the bazaars, and other major city intersections. Mourning processions continued as they have every year, predating the Islamic revolution. In the intersections, self-flagellating men marched slowly, their chains falling on their backs to the rhythm of drums and the noheh -- lamenting anthems. They passed before scores of spectators. It is difficult to say exactly why the security forces had been called out. Was it because the authorities feared, in light of the Arab Spring (or the Islamic Awakening, as the Iranians prefer to call it), another spontaneous outbreak of protest against the regime? Or was it simply a measure of security in the face of what would be large crowds congregating on the streets?
If they feared the former, they needn't have worried. Exile groups had called for protests via social media and various foreign-based Web sites, but on the days leading up to Ashura no one inside Iran seemed to pay any heed. "We're sick of those exiles telling us what to do," one young person, still "green," said to me. "Let them come here and do it themselves."
And so life in Iran continues as it always has. The government is less powerful than it was, but the regime itself is firmly in control. The nuclear program continues; Iranians go about their business, grumbling as they do. But a nation that weathered a revolution, an eight-year war with Iraq, and more than 30 years of sanctions and the enmity of the West is not about to crumble, nor to change direction. Nothing that the United States or the West can do -- not even war -- will solve the "Iran problem" to its satisfaction. In fact, it's what the United States and its allies don't do that might be the key to the issue -- and what may also give Iranians looking to effect domestic change some badly needed breathing room.