Children of Iran, December 2017. Wikicommons/ Mostafameraji. Some rights reserved.On Tuesday night, I was on the plane coming back from giving a talk, when Donald Trump announced his rejection of the Iran nuclear deal.
The subject of the talk, ironically, was the economic sanctions and the ordinary suffering of Iranians. With a few exceptions, which sadly did not lead to more persistent and lasting attention, mainstream and western media accounts of economic sanctions have presented the nuclear dispute with Iran in a narrow and exclusionary framework which has focused on questions of the level of uranium enrichment, and the constant question mark posed over Iran’s compliance.
Meanwhile whilst the technicalities are hotly debated, the pain and predicament of the bodies of ordinary Iranians bearing the weight of sanctions seems to have been either ignored and side-lined, or even worse, deemed as the necessity which facilitates optimal success.
Life under sanctions
During the last four years doing research on the politics of Iran’s social media as they related to life under the US-led sanctions, I often came across highly emotionally charged accounts where people would attempt to describe their lives as a way of documenting and lending legitimacy to their frustrations, despair and anger directed towards the imposers of the sanctions – not only those so often referred to in Iran as ‘the westerners’, but also the mostly conservative elements within the Iranian governing regime who wanted to pursue the nuclear program.
The following is a Facebook comment posted in February 2015, a few months before the deal was struck. It is in the form of an informal letter addressed to Javad Zarif, as though the writer is drawing on a personal relationship in order to highlight a matter of great urgency:
‘In what language do I need to say you that we don’t want nuclear energy? At what expense do we have nuclear power? At the expense of a sick child in his dad’s arms, dying because of not having enough money for drugs? At the expense of poverty and prostitution among the youth? At the expense of children sleeping with empty stomachs? At the expense of fathers losing their jobs? Really, at what expense? If we open our eyes [we see] economic sanctions have affected us, in fact affected us immensely. Really, people don’t deserve to live like this. […] You please do whatever you can with your own hands to lift the sanctions quickly. The eyes of Iran and its children are on you.’
The spectators of suffering
I’ll be situating this in relation to what Iranians commonly feel to be a western lack of recognition of their suffering lives, what they refer to as their ‘despairing’ life and ‘broken backs’, a Farsi expression invoking the misery of existence. So, it was not a total surprise when I found myself agitated for the entire duration of the flight, for we had taken off just before the US president announced his decision on the fate of the nuclear deal.
We had barely landed when, with a mixture of joy and distress, I heard the captain’s voice announcing that comforting phrase: ‘you may wish now to switch your phones on’. I checked my Telegram and Twitter for all the bad news updates even before I grabbed my hand luggage. I learned not only that the US would be abandoning the long-sought agreement, but that it would also ensure the reimposition of the sanctions on Iran which had been lifted or postponed.
And I was only one of millions sharing their distress: the Iranian social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram – the two latter amongst the most popular Farsi online platforms – were already accumulating the intensity of what everyone was feeling and thinking about the possible consequences of Trump’s speech.
On my Telegram platform, people had already started constructing and mediating satire and jokes, and also capturing feelings of vulnerability, frustration, fear and anger. Telegram is amongst the most popular social media applications for the ordinary Iranian public, yet the most controversial and provocative one under the ruling class’s eagle eyes (it doesn’t take much time to figure out there isn’t a happy marriage between the Iranian public and the conservative governing regimes).
One of my regular reads is an ex-blogger who had left off blogging – ‘weblogistan’ is now a graveyard of dead sites – to try her luck on Telegram. She has been writing about everyday life and has over three thousand subscribers. That night she wrote how it seemed that Iran was engaged in early preparations for another New Year – everyone super alert, sitting and waiting excitedly to hear the fireworks. Her daughters, already in bed, were waiting for Trump’s decision; the youngest one, poking her head out from under the duvet, sleepily asked: ‘is he in or out?’.
Far away from her, I was barely able to sit on my seat during the flight, desperate to hear whether Trump was ripping up so many hearts and hopes. It is true that since 2015, and the sheer euphoria over the final nuclear deal between Iran and the ‘5+1’ global powers, ordinary people’s lives have not gone back to ‘normal’. Nevertheless, the hope persists in the public, the hope for an eventual sanctions-free future.
The prospect of a nuclear deal had been the subject of everyday household talk in Iran – something we would talk about over dinner, or at parties, weddings and funeral gatherings. After 2010’s Comprehensive Sanctions Act (CISADA), when sanctions began to seriously bite into ordinary lives, the prospect of an agreement seemed unbelievable, or at least not on the cards any time soon. When Barack Obama announced the deal, taking pride and joy in what he called at the time ‘our best bet’, it was not only perceived as a victory for the then US president and his European counterparts; it was caressed by ordinary Iranians as the hope they longed for.
Since the 1979 revolution, which resulted in the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Iran has been under various types of sanctions, but the intensified sanctions on Iran effectively began in 2006 and reached their climax in 2010. In response to allegations concerning Iran’s attempts to develop a nuclear weapons capacity, the UN Security Council imposed additional sanctions, which were binding upon all member states. Meanwhile, the US continued unilaterally expanding its punitive measures. The US also threatened punitive measures against any countries trading with Iran – an act which was criticized even by US allies as extra-territorial interference. Joy Gordon points out that the set of sanctions called (CISADA) or the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act were the severest measures against Iran, with strong similarities to the disastrous sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s. As Erica Moret, a senior researcher at the Institute of International and Development Studies and chair of the Geneva International Sanctions Network explains, economic sanctions went well beyond the authorized sanctions by the UN Security Council resolutions, and have had broad, indiscriminate effects on economic and social life in Iran, in particular on the availability of medicine and cost of imported goods. They also affected Iran’s energy sector, and not only the cost but the safety of transportation: plane crashes were frequent, given that Iran wasn’t allowed to obtain spare parts for its aircraft.
In or out?
As I write this, I give myself a break to chat on Facebook with a long-time friend of mine in Iran. The conversation starts with him saying ‘hey, every minute I feel more and more disgusted by what is happening. The worst thing is to take away the hope from people, and this is something which, by an amazing stroke of luck, both “the inside” and “the outside” are generous enough to do for us’.
I felt his bitter sarcasm in my heart. He did not even need to explain what he meant by the terms ‘inside’ and ‘outside’: we both knew them from all the discussions that had publicly emerged on social media, first on Facebook and latterly, when the star of Facebook began to fade, on Twitter and Telegram.
Last night, I spent hours navigating what was being said. These terms had yet again returned, surfacing in online discussions around the unlikely proximity of hardliners and conservatives in Iran to hardliners in the United States, given that all of them had been hostile to the deal from the moment it was signed.
The success of Dr Hassan Rouhani’s presidential campaign in 2013 in mobilising people was precisely due to his invocation of a hope that the economic sanctions would come to an end, and with that the promise that a better life will emerge; Hassan Rouhani was able to generate this hope by granting the Iranian public an acknowledgement and recognition of their pain and suffering, long denied both by western countries, but also by Iranian conservatives. Let’s remember Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s famous statement that the sanctions did not have any effect on ordinary people: they were ‘a torn piece of paper’!
So I write now to highlight the importance of bringing the vulnerability of bodies in pain and the precariousness of lives – children suffering shortages of medicine, people with chronic disease, the bitterness of people not being able to provide for their families – back into a political sphere currently alive with discussions on Iran’s nuclear programme and sanctions.
Yet again, in that part of the political sphere which gets the spotlight – especially in the European Union countries – attention is wholly occupied with analyses, ideas, and hypotheses about the future of trade with Iran, and the ‘risks’ – to people or business? – of reducing engagement. This is why I am a social media enthusiast – for its role in bringing to the surface those fragments of everyday lives which do not always cohere outside it, for bitterly angry people who do not watch what they say, who do not mind at all that what they say does not count within the so called ‘real’ political sphere, with its traditional or ‘legacy’ media.
Believe me, compared with the scale of destruction and interruption of ordinary life wrought by the economic sanctions over the years, I now consider as banal my occasional – though traumatising – arrests by the infamous morality police in Tehran for not wearing my scarf ‘properly’. This, if you like, was part of an everyday mundane practice of resistance and not that disruptive – at least then I could hold onto a job, in between getting notices to attend the police station.
 The phrase is borrowed from the title of the book The Spectatorship of Suffering (2006) by Lilie Chouliaraki.