Ordinary Iranians need to be reminded by the west that their suffering through sanctions is the fault of Iran’s elite
Daily life in Iran has never been such a grind. In just the past month, the price of milk and yoghurt has jumped, foreign medicines have risen by a third and most brands of cigarettes cost about 20-50% more. Exporters nervous about getting paid are suspending shipments of tea, rice and cooking oil. Iran’s middle class is feeling the squeeze; with the country’s currency in a tailspin, holidays to favourite spots like Turkey and Thailand are no longer an option.
As the prospect of further price increases looms, even moderate Iranians opposed to the government are growing resentful of the west.
In the early days of his presidency, Barack Obama was bubbling over with messages for the Iranian people. In comparison, today’s silence is deafening. The west has become so involved in its political brinkmanship with the mullahs that it has lost sight of how its actions play out internally in Iran. But public sentiment should not be ignored, as what unfolds in Iran will have as much to do with Iranians as it does with Iranian politicians.
The west must outline that sanctions are not designed to target the people of Iran, but Iranian officials and the Revolutionary Guard elite who now control large swaths of the economy. Iranians need to hear that the west is applying sanctions as a means to avoid a worse confrontation, and that humanitarian goods like food and medicines are exempt.
Because the majority of Iranians share the government’s ambitions to nuclear power, which lay at the heart of these sanctions, the west should clarify how Iran can both pursue its legitimate aims and live up to its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Association. Iranians should be reminded that the government can take steps to extricate itself from this mess and, most importantly, that much awaits them should it choose to.
Explaining why Iranians are not on a fast-track to Iraq’s fate matters, especially as the west has made it clear that these sanctions are only the beginning. “We’re going to continue to see these kinds of knock-on effects as the pressure tightens, even though the focus is not at all on the people,” says a senior US official. “And there’s more coming through the pipeline. This pressure is meant to stave off the inclination to go to war, using the strongest possible non-military means to change Iran’s behaviour.”
An important case in point is the sanctions targeting Iran’s civil aviation industry. Imposed by the US since 1995, these sanctions prohibit the sale of spare aeroplane parts to Iran, whose fleet of decrepit Boeings has suffered regular accidents over the past decade, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths. Iranian officials rail against these sanctions, reminding citizens at every opportunity that the mercenary west cares nothing for their safety.
But the reality is not as black and white as Tehran makes out. American law includes provisions allowing Iran to procure spare parts by applying to the US treasury department for a special licence. Under this provision, Iran applies for what it needs through an intermediary and the parts are installed in a licensed third-country, such as by Lufthansa in Germany. Iran has availed itself of this option in the past, and the treasury has issued nearly a dozen special licences related to its civil aircraft, according to a treasury department official. Given that Tehran is pretending this provision doesn’t exist and is declining to use it more aggressively, Washington should make the case that Iran is playing its own cynical game.
Iranians are a politically savvy people, but their willingness to hold their government accountable for the parlous state of the economy is endangered by the rising costs of sanctions. The west is losing goodwill among the secular-minded Iranians who in 2009 demonstrated in the streets carrying placards asking Obama for his help.
The US and its allies in Europe must take to television, and resume their conversation with the Iranian people. Most Iranians watch TV news religiously, and an audience of millions tunes in to satellite broadcasts by BBC Persian and Voice of America’s Persian network.
BBC Persian is emerging as an especially influential voice among Iranians, and the platform offers an easy means for American and European officials to complement sanctions with public diplomacy. With news quick to reverberate across Iran’s voluminous blogosphere, there are myriad ways for Iranians to hear what the west has to say. It is a grim task, explaining to Iranians precisely who is responsible for what share of their suffering, but sanctioning in silence is a terrible alternative.