For an outsider, mind-eye coordination is a difficult art to master in Iran. Matching what one knows, through what one has heard or read, with what the eye sees on the streets, in homes, markets and campuses takes a while. And when they don’t, every stereotype lies shattered. The stereotype of a veiled and distressed society edging towards the end of its tether? Not true. The stereotype of an Islamic republic that only subjugates women? Not true. The stereotype of a country brought to its knees due to sanctions? Not true.
For a country pummelled by severe economic sanctions by the United States and its western allies for over three decades and considered an international pariah for years, Iran surely has done well to recover. If it bears scars and wounds from the years of economic deprivation, it does not easily show them. To an outsider, it does not give the impression of being a victim nation. On the contrary, Iran is keen to show off its progress and its ability to bounce back and cock a snook at the US’s elaborate machinery of control and punishment.
Iran’s mega city, its capital Tehran, a metropolis of nearly 14 million, exemplifies this resilient defiance. Its well-paved avenues and boulevards, the mega malls and cafes, its buildings and beautified cityscape, the bustle and burst of colour in its bazaars and streets, the roaring traffic along the freeways—all belie the image of a nation that was ostracised by the developed world for so long.
So if 36 years of sanctions by the US and its western allies were meant to wreak economic havoc and make Iran grovel, then their enforcers can perhaps only claim partial success. Economically, Iran was hit hard, especially after the ‘crippling sanctions’ of 2012, over the intractable issue of its nuclear ‘ambitions’, that targeted its banking sector and other important entities. It led to a sharp fall in Iran’s oil revenue and triggered inflation and unemployment. There was unrest too. The ‘green revolution’ in 2009-10, a popular wave of protests demanding electoral transparency and greater freedom, which was put down brutally by president Ahmadinejad, raised hopes in the West. But politically, they achieved little. The more the clamour for ‘regime change’, the more it forced Iranians to rally behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, identifying the survival of the Islamic Republic with their own existential crises. Iran was forced to bend but it did not break.
A combination of spunk, determination and wily diplomacy by Iran finally led to a breakthrough in Vienna on July 14 when Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif and US secretary of state John Kerry, along with the other members of the P-5 plus one (Germany), signed the much-touted nuclear agreement. Widely described as historic, it aims to prevent Iran’s suspected attempt to make a nuclear bomb in exchange for lifting much of the crippling sanctions. More importantly, it not only ends Iran’s international isolation, but also allows it to claim its rightful place in West Asia and beyond. Though the full import of the deal will be realised in the near future, there is a demand that Zarif and Kerry be awarded the Nobel peace prize.
Yet, with the sharp claws of sanctions gnawing at Iran’s vitals, the visitor is impressed at how, through pride—both civilisational and nationalistic—and fortitude, Iranians have managed to take on and adapt to hardship. They have been doing so for decades.
“Adaption is one of the most important things of living beings,” says Esmail Afshar, a leading cosmetic surgeon. “Besides, we have managed to survive not only for years, but centuries.”
His words ring true in Iran’s gleaming capital: The fast-food and hamburger joints include the popular Super Star fried chicken, built on the lines of KFC, Apple look-alike stores, chic boutiques, with their glass exteriors reflecting a swathe of mobile city life, art galleries and well-designed parks along Valiasr Avenue—the longest road in the city, which connects the western and eastern parts of Tehran. All deepen the belief that this is a country that is waiting to take off.
Some experts feel many European and other countries have all been waiting at the starting line to rush into Iran to corner much of its 80-million strong, untapped market. China, which already has a significant presence in Iran, building its railway links from Tehran to the Caspian Sea and other infrastructure projects, definitely has a headstart over others. India, which is developing the Chabahar port that connects Iran with Afghanistan and plans to build a mega steel project outside Tehran, has already increased its oil imports from Iran in anticipation of consolidating its position in a post-deal scenario. Iran’s geostrategic position, which in the pre-1979 era had made it the pre-eminent power in West Asia, yet again provides an opportunity for the more prosperous nation to regain that slot.
But one of the biggest surprises in Tehran are its captivating women (see filmmaker Hekmat’s interview). They are not only out in large numbers in the bazaars and streets, offices and universities (over 65 per cent of students and teachers in most educational institutions are women). Their way of dressing, especially the ultra-modish use of the veil—a subject of much heated debate in the past—is an indication of the remarkable changes that have swept Iran in recent years.
At least in Tehran, the image of the black chador-wrapped figure one always associated with Iranian womanhood has been displaced. Today fashionable women in designer jeans, leather boots and fancy, colourful shoes, mix freely with men and, on occasion, smoke with Parisienne grace at roadside cafes and other public spaces. The veil is now used more like a head scarf, stylishly draped over the head, framing faces in striking ways. It is no longer uncommon for young women to live alone, or live-in with their boyfriends. Tehran was always famous for its raucous, late-night house parties. What used to be part of a sub-culture hidden from most eyes is now part of the mainstream, claiming many young Iranians as its own.
Almost as an indication of the changed lifestyle and increasing freedom Iranian women now enjoy, Tehran is also gaining reputation as the ‘nose-job’ capital of the world, with large numbers of women queuing up at clinics to get their looks changed. “The rush to do so is not only among the rich, even the not-so-rich are going for cosmetic surgery. They all want to look more beautiful,” says Afshar. But is this how long-suffering women in a sanction-hit country are supposed to behave?
“The sanctions never really worked,” says a former Tehran journalist who now works as an English interpreter. Working through a web of shell companies operating from either Dubai, Taiwan and other cities, Iranian authorities found a way to ease the pressure of the sanctions to sell oil and earn much-needed revenue.
Such arguments could be part of the bravado that some Iranians parade before outsiders. Most experts agree that 2012 was the most ‘tumultuous period’ for the Iranian economy. According to a report by the Washington-based National Iranian American Council (NIAC), in one calendar year, Iran’s GDP per capita declined by nearly eight per cent, inflation increased by over 10 per cent and unemployment inched close to 20 per cent. By the admission of the then Iranian petroleum minister, Rostam Qassemi, Iran’s crude oil export revenues fell by about 40.2 per cent.
Besides, the long term impact of sanctions was also felt on loss of new investments and declining technology, undermining the long-term sustainability of oil and gas production. That year the budget deficit stood at 3.5 per cent of the GDP. In addition, it also impacted the Iranian industry—production fell by nearly 40 per cent and thousands were left jobless. Iranians, especially its poorer and middle-income sections, groaned under the combined effect of the sanctions, former president Ahmedinejad’s populist measures and a mismanaged economy.
“The rising inflation never allowed us to plan properly,” complains Fida, a middle-class housewife. The riyal devalued three times in a month during Ahmedinejad’s time and its effects are still being felt, she says. Similar complaints are also heard from many shopkeepers and merchants in Bozorg-e-Bazar—Iran’s iconic grand market.
Currently, the commonest grouses of Iranians are about rising inflation, falling living standards and inefficient healthcare. They are complaints of a normal citizenry, not the sighs of despair of a defeated nation.
“The sanctions did not affect the politicians or government officials; it only affected the poor and suffering Iranians,” says Ciamak Mousadegh, a Jewish member of the Iranian Majlis (parliament).
Politically, the leadership of the Islamic republic used the sanctions and the resultant hardship in predictable ways—to consolidate its position further and strengthen the anti-American mood. The more people suffered, the more they blamed America. “The resistance economy” launched by the Supreme Leader and his close associates to deal with the sanctions stressed on encouraging domestic industries and allowed people to be ingenious. Along with this, they also tried to expand many of the state benefits to a larger number of Iranians, especially the poor and those living in the remote areas (a fact borne by a UNDP report, which puts Iran in the ‘high’ category, acknowledging its impressive achievements in all social indices). This, hoped the rulers, would widen their support base and strengthen their legitimacy.
“In the contemporary world, we have successfully defended the move against oppression, colonialism and arrogance of the US and its Zionist ally,” says Hossein Kamani Moghadam, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards.
The US-led sanctions on Iran were imposed almost from the time of the inception of the Islamic republic in 1979. The American hostage crisis that played out for 444 days deepened the hatred between the two sides. But Iran’s hostility towards US actually began in 1953, when a CIA-engineered coup toppled nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq—to thwart his attempt to nationalise the country’s oil and natural resources—and replaced him with Reza Shah Pahlavi. Even today, the Mossadeq episode is kept alive in the national narrative to whip up anti-American sentiments.
“We can never trust the Americans, look at what they had done to Mossadeq,” says Mohammed, a young graduate from Tehran University.
The angst against the US and the West is not only limited to the Mossadeq episode. It comes up during conversations on politics and the contemporary world. “For Iran, the past is always present,” says R.K. Ramazani, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia. He explains, “a paradoxical combination of pride in Iranian culture and a sense of victimisation have created a fierce sense of independence and a culture of resistance to dictation and domination by any foreign power among the Iranian people.”
Over the years, the litany of complaints against the US has only grown, even as Americans responded with more sanctions and stricter measures and redoubled their effort to isolate Iran internationally.
Some Iranians feel that it was the hostage crisis and the republic’s decision to prolong it that turned not only the US mood, but also world opinion, against Tehran. “We have paid a heavy price for that,” says Hermidas Bavand, a former Iranian diplomat from the Shah’s regime. His suggestion to take the issue to UN for an early resolution was turned down in 1980. “The shadow of the hostage crisis chased us for a long time,” he says.
Yet, the pull of American popular culture—Hollywood, rock n’roll, fashion, slang—had always remained strong among the smart young set. Even in serious debates all too capable of excoriating the US, a respect for US society and its solid achievements has had a shadowy presence. “The US always exists in different layers in Iran,” says an observer.
But now that the sanctions are set to disappear what might follow in this country of 80 million?
“We are not anti-American. Our fight was against their policy,” says Moghadam, the former guards commander.
Ayatollah Seyed Ali Emad from Qom, deputy of Ayatollah Hosseini Boushehri, head of all seminaries in Iran, also sounds conciliatory when asked about the how he sees the Republic’s future relations with the ‘Great Satan’. He explains that the main aim of the nuclear negotiations was to “reduce tension and hostility”, while achieving a breakthrough that would have recognised Iran’s legitimate rights and respected its “red lines”. Since that has now been achieved, Iran’s hope is to have better relations with “the international community and humankind”.
The ‘Great Satan’ might not transform into a seraph overnight. But one shouldn’t be surprised if in future sermons from the Supreme Leader you no longer hear that term for the United States.
By Pranay Sharma in Tehran