North Africa, West Asia

A family under attack: Iranian exiles and the economic sanctions

The sanctions force Iranians to suspend their struggle against their abusive father, fearing that the interfering strangers would manipulate their demands and grievances.

Amir Ahmadi Arian
20 February 2019

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US Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Army Transport Logistics base in Warsaw, Poland on February 13, 2019 on the occasion of the Middle East summit which has as it's main focus Iran which is deemed as a threat to security in the region. Picture by Jaap Arriens/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

"If - god forbid - a war begins, then I, a man without country who has never claimed to make sacrifices for the people of Iran because I am not arrogant enough for saying that, a man who assumes no adjective but godless, will return to Iran to defend my motherland against my adopted mother [America]."

Thus writes Mohsen Namjoo‬, one of the most renowned and influential artists in contemporary Iran, in his latest book, Four Essays. As he himself implies, there’s a contradiction in asserting that you are a man without country and claiming to defend the motherland should it comes under attack. But this is a contradiction many exiled Iranians experience these days

Today there are thousands of Iranians living abroad who were writers and artists and journalists living and working in Iran, striving to improve upon the reality of their lives and their country. Then someone in the government decided that they had gone too far, that their activity posed a threat to “national security”, which is practically a euphemism for putting any challenge to the full dominance of the government in every aspect of life in Iran. Their books were censored, their meetings were raided, their concerts were canceled. They were prosecuted for non-violent political activities and many of them ended up in jail. Life became so hard they abandoned their country, their families, their loved ones. They scattered around the world and, like Namjoo, became men and women without country.

Recently, as the nuclear deal saga unfolded, they saw how Iran, having fully complied by the terms of the deal, is being punished with brutal, unjustifiable sanctions. Like Namjoo, this gross injustice hits them in the stomach, urges them to go out of their ways to defend their country against bullies and intimidators, even though it is still run by the very people that ruined their lives. These exiled Iranians know full well that the Twitter trolls and other accounts that support the incumbents in Iran will take advantage of their position and interpret it as support for their masters, but at this point, as the country faces serious threats to its very fabric, those calculations seem out of place.

Namjoo’s choice of words helps us resolve this seeming contradiction. He says that he is willing to defend Motherland (Maam-e Vatan‬) against his adopted mother (Maadar-e Nakhandeh). He could have chosen words without familial undertone. But this usage is telling, as the sanctions have driven the issue out of politics. This is now a family matter. The sanctions have targeted the very existence of the country, and the Iranians, even those immune to its economic effects, feel the impact in the most visceral, immediate fashion. Trump’s crudeness, his brazen disregard for human suffering, and the pathetic silence of US allies, only occasionally broken by lukewarm, winking reprimand, makes us, Iranian exiles, set aside the fact that the current rulers of Iran have forced us out of our home. ‬‬

In his seminal book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson talks to this sentiment: “It would, I think, make things easier if one treated it [Nationalism] as if it belonged with 'kinship' and 'religion', rather than with 'liberalism' or 'fascism'.” Nation is pure construction, something imagined into being. It is a fundamentally irrational concept. One never meets the vast majority of her fellow-compatriots and has no rationale to entangle her fate with theirs, yet so many have sacrificed their lives for this imagined commune, and will do so in the future. It is a visceral, emotional connection, much similar to what one feels towards her family members. It is a strong, irrational emotion, something like love or hate, or, as a stranger puts it to Mr. Ai in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness: “No, I don't mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear.”

So let us recast this issue in familial terms: for many exiled Iranians the Iranian government has been an abusive, cruel father that tormented them so much they walked away from the family. Some started a new life and tried to forget the past, many stayed in touch and continued the struggle to fix the family. Now, for many of us these long years of harsh economic sanctions amount to watching a big bully beating up our abusive father. In this case, no matter how much you hate the father, when you see that scene you will run ahead to defend him. There’s a reason why people from fragile, embattled nations tend to be more sensitive about jokes or insults to their homeland, compared to those who experience no immediate threat to their countries. People from volatile parts of the world become protective of an ailing, battered parent, no matter how much they might despise them. Donald Trump’s success has to do with him convincing a sizeable portion of American voters that America is a weakened, fragile nation embattled by Muslims and Latinos, in urgent need of a strongman to protect it.

The sanctions are interfering with a painful, yet overall strong family dynamic in Iran. The sanctions force Iranians to suspend their struggle against their abusive father, fearing that the interfering strangers would manipulate their demands and grievances. Moreover, the sanctions are damaging the economy to the extent that providing basic commodities has already become a challenge. As a result, people will be less involved in politics, in movements that pursue real, substantial change, for empty stomachs never prioritize politics. If the intention, as stated, is to stymie the government so that the nation would rise and take it down, that’s the worst strategy to fulfill it.

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