It’s one thing to read news accounts about US sanctions and the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran, but it’s another to hear first-hand accounts. The following is a frank discussion with six Iranian Americans about how the collapse of the Iranian economy and the healthcare crisis affect the lives of people back home. Now that this pandemic is wrecking economies throughout the entire world, it may be easier for people to understand what has been happening in Iran—and hopefully feel more empathy.
The discussion is based on an April 5 webinar hosted by CODEPINK. The voices are those of Sussan Tahmasebi, a women's rights activist and director of an organization called FEMENA; Leila Zand, the CODEPINK Director of Citizen Diplomacy with Iran; Salome MC, a musician, multimedia artist, and educator; Sima Shakhsari, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota; Fatemeh Keshavarz, a professor of Persian Studies at the University of Maryland; and Sussan Deyhim, an Iranian American composer, vocalist, and performance artist.
Sussan T: Just like here in the United States, people in Iran are really suffering from coronavirus and government inability to respond in a timely manner. When the virus first hit Iran, the government bungled the response. It is believed that the source of the virus were Chinese students living in the city of Qom, the first epicenter of the virus. But because U.S. sanctions have made the Iranian government overly reliant on trade with China, it was unable to control and limit air travel. The anniversary of the Revolution in February and the Parliamentary elections in March were further reasons for authorities not to appropriately take action. The government wanted a strong turnout for both so it delayed warning public and taking measures, putting people in jeopardy.
Long before this pandemic, the Iranian economy has been suffering because of the sanctions, as well as corruption and mismanagement. After the nuclear deal had been signed in 2015 under Obama, people looked forward to an improved economic situation. Just as that began to happen, Trump reimposed the sanctions and made them even tougher. The results of this “maximum pressure campaign” have been devastating for ordinary Iranians.
Our friends who have businesses have had to shut them down. Scores of people have lost their jobs. The local currency, the rial, has repeatedly lost value.
Women have been particularly hurt as a result of the economic downturn. It’s hard to have gender disaggregated data on who has lost their jobs. Most of those who have lost employment or who have suffered economically were already working on the economic margins; they were employed as day laborers or street peddlers, or providers of services. But based on reports from women activists, many businesses started laying off their employees after the reimposition of sanctions. The first to be laid off were women. Women are already economically disadvantaged by the reality of life in Iran. They are discriminated against in terms of the law; they have little access to the job market. Now, with the pandemic, women have to take care of children who stay home from school and for family members as they become sick.
One of the activists I talked to said something that really struck me. She said, “It isn't strange to me that Iranian's have been dying from coronavirus at such high rates because by the time the virus hit, Iranians were already depleted in every aspect of life. People haven’t been eating well for years. They have nutritional deficiencies and health problems, so they are already extremely weak.” One of the ways to beat this virus is to have a strong immune system. But if your immune system is already compromised, because your nutrition is poor and because you have not been to the doctor even for chronic illness due to financial constraints caused in large part by the maximum pressure campaign, then it's really hard to fight this virus.
I have worked with the women’s movement in Iran for years. As a result of repression, government crackdown and sanctions that seek to isolate Iran, the Iranian women’s movement is more isolated today than it has ever been. Activists also suffer from economic problems, so it becomes hard for them to do voluntary work. The women’s movement is a very sophisticated movement with a long history of creatively advocating for rights. Over the last decade, activists have advocated for all kinds of issues: the inclusion of women in decision-making roles, their election to Parliament or even to run for President, the reform of laws that to ensure women’s equality within the law, and an end to sexual harassment in the public sphere. But when people are in survival mode, they lose interest in pushing for human rights. Rights issues become secondary for everyone. The most important issue becomes the economy and how people will feed their families.
Sima: I have loved ones in Iran and I'm constantly worried about them. I have two nieces who are doctors. They're working day and night. Even before the coronavirus, they had difficulties getting access to medicine and equipment, in particular cancer medication. I know this only too well because I lost my sister to cancer in 2015. Her children had to buy chemo meds on the black market, never knowing if they were good or not, and carry them in ice boxes to the hospital for their mother. People might think this is a conspiracy theory, but when the U.S. introduced the Stuxnet computer virus to disrupt Iran’s nuclear research program, it disrupted her radiotherapy. She had to go to Imam Khomeini Hospital because it had a radiotherapy machine that was not computerized. But it didn’t have an accurate gauge, so they burnt her lungs and she had to have multiple surgeries to recover from that.
Now with this pandemic, the situation is worse. My nieces told me that even though there is no treatment for COVID-19, there are four antiviral medications they try to give in a cocktail for advanced corona patients. Since I last heard, two of those are non-existent and one is extremely hard to find. The last one is actually an antiviral medication used for HIV patients, and with the increased demand, that medicine is now scarce. So HIV patients with compromised immune systems come to the hospital looking for the medicine that’s now hard to find, and they get exposed to the virus because of the number of infected patients in the hospital.
The doctors don’t have enough personal protection equipment. The ventilators they have are old, overused and breaking down. Some of the equipment and medicines are cheaply made products from China. The chemo medicines that are available in hospitals are low quality and the side effects, like nausea, are terrible. And only those with money can afford to buy them on black market, if you can find them that is. So we have a medical catastrophe in Iran.
There have been some donations but Iran has 83 million people and so many people are infected that these donations are not nearly enough. The real solution is to lift the sanctions and to remedy all the damage that sanctions, over the decades, have caused in Iran.
Salome: I have a lot of friends and family in the medical field in Iran and it’s really tragic what's been happening. When Trump reimposed sanctions, the big pharmaceutical companies all left Iran. Even if you want to buy medicine from them, you can’t because the ways of paying are blocked. Much of the medical equipment, such as CAT scan machines, is falling apart and can’t be fixed because they can’t get the spare parts. Sometimes even very basic medical supplies just don't exist, like IVs or even disinfectants. Hospitals routinely cancel their scheduled procedures and their basic surgeries because of these shortages.
Much of the latest technology and medicines are not available. Doctors know there are better, safer options out there, but they don't have access to them. So they substitute older medicines that don’t work as well and have higher risks, but it's better than nothing. My oncologist friend told me she recently lost three patients because they didn't have access to a basic antifungal medicine called amphotericin.
Fatemeh: People often say that humanitarian items are exempt from sanctions but that’s absurd because companies, including the banks, are afraid of making deals with Iran.
I see some of the problems with our Iranian students who come to study at the University of Maryland. Their parents have trouble paying the tuition fees because banks don’t want to transfer money from Iran.
Students in Iran can’t even download the apps on their computers that they need for their studies. They go to download a program to look up some important information and they get a message saying “Sorry, you are in a country that cannot use this program.”
People who used to be happy and smiling and enjoying life are now crushed and they can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. That is really heart-breaking.
Yes, people are angry at the Iranian government, but also at the U.S. government. The Trump administration even blocked Iran from getting a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to deal with the crisis. I think Iranians, even those who don’t like the government, are going to remember—for a long time—that the American government-sanctioned them during a pandemic. This inhumanity will have a lasting impression, just as Iranians remember that overthrow of our democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. And this not only causes more problems between our governments, but it creates a dangerous opening to extremists inside Iran who say “This is what we have been saying all along. You cannot deal with the U.S.” So this is a critical, historical moment.
Secretary Pompeo apparently brought up the idea of attacking Iran now that it is so weak. He’s basically saying that this is a good time to go in for the kill. To me this is a very clear crime against humanity. It says a lot about the level of dehumanization that has happened, where Iranians are seen as expendable people whose death doesn't count. That level of dehumanization terrifies me.
Salome: I don't think that the Iranian government is about to fall apart but I think that the fabric of society is unravelling due to both the Iranian government’s corruption and ineptitude but also because of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. Some people, especially the Iranian-American community, support this pressure campaign because they want to weaken the Iranian government and the Revolutionary Guards. But, ironically, the sanctions have turned the Revolutionary Guards into a financial superpower. They have always been an economic force since the time of the revolution. They have a hand in every sector of the economy, from agriculture and mining to transportation and construction. But the private sector started to flourish when the sanctions were lifted and they were able to bid on big projects, including a multi-billion-dollar train project. Private entrepreneurs were finally getting a chance to benefit from the riches our country has to offer.
With sanctions, the whole economy has become more centralized and the private sector has been completely decimated.
Now, the Revolutionary Guards are everywhere. They control the borders, where they smuggle goods in. They are the only entity that can easily circumvent sanctions, so they control a massive black market in everything from consumer products to construction materials.
It’s really ironic when you think about the American values of free trade. With the opening we had under Obama, the ordinary people were empowered and that could have led to real change in Iran. I went to the School of Design in Tehran and during that opening, many of my friends started their own small businesses, designing clothes and making accessories. One of my friends from college had a small jewellery business and after the Obama administration lifted sanctions, her business boomed. She actually started selling her jewellery overseas in Europe and even America. She went from working in her living room to getting a real studio and hiring people. This is what real hope and independence looks like. But then came Trump’s sanctions and she couldn’t get a bank to transfer money anymore. She lost all her overseas business and inside Iran, the economy collapsed so people were obviously not buying jewellery anymore. Her whole business is completely gone now. There are a lot of sad stories like that.
Sussan D: As an artist myself, I see what’s happening to the artists in Iran. First of all, let’s be clear. Artists, especially women, have been suffering in Iran for 40 years now with the horrible restrictions imposed by the Islamic regime. Many have had to work underground. But some of these magnificent underground artists made international connections in the last 5 to 10 years and were invited to perform overseas, including the U.S. and Europe. They were singers, musicians, painters, filmmakers. It was wonderful. They were bringing their messages, their lament, their talents to the international community. For those of us living in exile, many of us for 40 years now, it was a way to appreciate their creativity and to be connected with our homeland.
With the sanctions, all of that has stopped. Nobody can bring any of these artists to the United States. So it's been devastating for the artists and for us.
The sanctions are meant to weaken the disastrous political structures of the Islamic Republic, but instead they hurt the people. Now with the coronavirus epidemic, I have never heard so many cries for help from friends and family in Iran. The sanctions should really be considered a violation of human rights.
Now we have the coronavirus crisis in both countries. We can see throughout history that during crises, control gets consolidated by those at the top; in Iran, the regime and here, the Trump administration. Society becomes really weak and can't think for itself, and it gives more power to governments. If the governments are good, that might not be a bad thing. But, unfortunately, we're stuck between a theocratic regime in Iran and hardcore Republican administration here. Both are anti-humanity.
Sima: We have to look at the past forty years of the Iranian history. In times of peace, there have been many gains for civil society, in particular after the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1989. The women’s movement, the student movement, the labor movement all made gains.
During wartime, though, and I consider sanctions to be a form of war, the discourse of national security is heightened and that is exactly when there is no possibility of dissent or protest. We saw how the protests against gas prices in November of last year were violently repressed. The state justified the crackdown by accusing the protesters of colluding with foreign powers. Sanctions give the state an excuse to quash legitimate protests in the name of national security.
People criticize the Iranian government's lack of transparency and accountability, and lack of democracy. But there is a paradox: the U.S. is promoting rights and democratization while depriving people of the basic rights to food and medicines. And how can you advocate for human rights but be in favor of sanctions during a pandemic?
Sanctions affect the most vulnerable: women-headed households, refugees, queer and trans people—people who are on the margins of the society in a time when there's great competition for resources. I work with the queer and trans refugees, and most of those who have left Iran are actually economic refugees. They left when the sanctions were tightened because they couldn’t get jobs and didn't see any future. Under the sanctions, the economic situation deteriorates and those who are the most vulnerable are the ones who are subjected to job discrimination. That includes refugees, women, and queer and trans folks. There is another issues with the trans folks. In the past, the state used to subsidize gender-affirming surgeries. With the sanctions, that support has been significantly reduced. In the case of trans men, in the past the government could pay for top surgeries, ovariectomies, and hysterectomies, but after the tightening of the sanctions, some trans folks told me that the money was barely enough for hysterectomies.
We make a mistake when we don’t pay attention to the needs of social movements and when our government treats Iran as a monolithic regime, erasing the nuances within the Iranian state. Some of the contestations to policies, like the rise in the gas price or social restrictions, actually come from members of the Iranian congress. So we have to look at the Iranian political system as one that is constantly in flux, moving in different directions according to the different pressures.
It is certainly no model of democracy, but then neither is the United States. Look at the problems we have in our electoral system. Look at the level of houselessness, the poverty, the lack of access to affordable health care. Look at the ICE detention centers, the racism, the mass incarceration, the historic and present-day violence against indigenous peoples. And look at the terrible response to coronavirus. We need to think about those things when we assume that the U.S. is the land of opportunity and democracy, and that the U.S. has the right to impose its will on other countries.
Fatemeh K: I'm really hoping for regime change here in the United States, and please allow me to use the word “regime” to describe the United States. Language should not be used exclusively to dehumanize one side. This has been the case in the US portrayal of Iran as a nation that is not “normal,” a terrorist state where its people are deemed expendable. The regime in the United States is very short-sighted and should be disabused of this notion and the notion that the Iranian people want them to intervene. If they attacked, they would never win over the hearts and the minds of Iranians any more than they won the hearts and the minds of the Iraqis or the Afghans.
One thing that would be helpful for us to do right now is to counter the dehumanization of Iranians by the U.S government and the media. We should show Iranians as normal people, people who love their children just like other people do, people who write poetry and perform music, people who, despite all they have been going through for 40 years, have achieved so much.
We also have to help the people in Iran feel that the world has not forgotten them. We have to help them keep that hope and vibrancy alive so that they can go through these dire times and get to a better place.
Sima: Those of us who are academics should educate our students. If you teach women gender studies, you can talk about the gendered effects of sanctions on Iran. If you teach environmental studies, you can talk about how the air that Iranians are breathing has ten to 800 times more toxins than it should. Why? Since the government can’t send the crude oil outside to be refined anymore, they have created home-grown refineries that produce very poor quality gasoline. That’s why the rate of cancer in Iran is so high.
I’m also involved with a small group of artists and we are producing wonderful t-shirts and bags that say “no war, no sanctions.” The money we raise goes to organizations that help Iranians and to putting up billboards in different cities. You can support us by wearing our shirts or helping get a billboard up in your own city (add link).
Salome: I work with kids. When we talk about educating Americans about sanctions, people usually think of college students. But kids are actually very receptive, and I have found a lot of ways to talk to them about war and sanctions. We adults take the cruelties of this world for granted, but when I talk to the kids about the impact of sanctions in Iran, Venezuela or Syria, they get very upset and say:s “That’s so awful. What can we do?” You usually don’t get the same kind of empathy from adults. Children understand and they are the future generation that will shape the foreign policy of this country. So if you’re a parent, teacher or have any way of educating a child, that’s one way to break the cycle and build policies based on empathy, peace and solidarity.
Leila: Many of us do not support the Iranian government but we know that foreign intervention is not the answer. We also know that if the Iranian government fell apart right now, there is no organized, democratic group ready to take over. On the contrary. It would it be chaos or civil war. We can look at Iraq and see what would happen. And it would be particularly dangerous at this time with the pandemic, when at least we have a central government that is trying to help people.
Those who support sanctions say sanctions relief would benefit the repressive government and would give it more money to support its regional allies in places like Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. The answer is not to impose collective punishment on over 80 million people, but to work to end the regional conflicts through diplomacy. That is why we must support the call of the UN Secretary General for a global ceasefire.
The UN has also called for the suspension of sanctions so Iran can deal with this pandemic internally and help stop it from spreading throughout this war-torn region. The call has been echoed by world leaders, editorials in major press like the The New York Times and The Washington Post, lawyers associations and many activist groups.
We need to do whatever we can amplify these voices and the voices of millions of Americans who are not in favor of war and sanctions, especially when we are all struggling with this pandemic. We need to organize people; we need to lobby congress; we need to pressure the administration; we need to work with like-minded groups in other countries. While our government is making life miserable for the Iranian people, it’s our job to promote diplomacy, friendship and solidarity.
We should also remember that Iran isn’t the only country under sanctions. There are many countries, including Venezuela, Cuba, Syria and North Korea, and we should remember how the people of Gaza are locked down. We need to work on their behalf as well.
People can go to the CODEPINK website to get information on our campaigns and see how you can support the humanitarian group Moms Against Poverty, an organization with a license to provide help to poor Iranians. We also have on the website a list of wonderful Iranian films and novels for people to learn more about Iran.