Top officials in Iran laugh at U.S. sanctions while the people suffer

New U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran have become so recurrent nowadays that they’ve become a joke, even among hardline clerics.

Soon after Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, announced that five members of the government’s Guardian Council were to be blacklisted ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections last Friday, the Council’s chief Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, whipped back: “They sanctioned me and I am wondering how I can access all my money in those American banks now?” he told reporters with a chuckle at a press conference in Tehran. “How can I go there for Christmas?”

A video clip of his response quickly trended across social media. To be clear, Jannati is a conservative hardliner whose views are by no means an accurate measure of public opinion. But his fiercely nationalistic and defiantly resistant tone resonated with millions of Iranians.

Pooria Asteraky, a digital marketing consultant and election volunteer in Tehran, laughs over Jannati’s comments. “Practically, what does it mean that Trump is sanctioning a Guardian Council member?” he asks. “Sanctioning is an act against the whole country. It doesn’t matter if it’s directed against one person, because that person doesn’t have a particular interest against the U.S. He [Trump] is hurting all Iranians.”

Asteraky holds that his political views are in a different category from officials on The Guardian Council, an un-elected 12-person board of experts in constitutional and Islamic law who this year disqualified 7,296 of 15,000 people who applied to run for parliament largely because of their moderate or reformist mindset. “On internal policy, I disagree with them on many things,” he says. “I’m mostly close to the reformists in my political views.”

But at the same time, the declaration of additional sanctions runs deep. “I don’t translate it to anything other than declaring war on Iran’s democracy,” Asteraky says. “I don’t think we have the most perfect democracy in the world, but we do have a voting system, an elected parliament, an elected government and a democratically elected mayor. It’s a democracy that millions of people trust and attended and voted — and that’s after 40 years of revolution.”

“If the democracy has a problem, it doesn’t concern Trump,” he adds. “It’s our democracy, our country, our problem.”

This nationalist, but anti-government sentiment aligns with what some political observers are noting as an interesting emergence in Iran: Independents who refuse to affiliate with either political bloc. “These edalat khwahs [Justice Seekers] are young, dynamic people, many of whom are pro-revolution and nationalistic but do not buy into the dichotomy of reformist and liberals and hardliners/conservatives,” says Kaneez Fatima, a journalist who used to live in Tehran. “They have based their political platform on wanting a justice-based society far removed from scoring political points, and that is something that has resonated with many Iranians who are slowly taking notice.”

While these self-professed edalat khwahs are not a new emergence, they could end up posing a serious threat to hardline politicians. Iranian journalist Rohollah Faghihi reports that two years ago the group wrote a letter challenging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to appear at the University of Tehran to answer students’ questions about institutions under his supervision, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and state TV, and to discuss the “performance of the Islamic Republic for the past 40 years.” More recently, these activists openly criticized Tehran for branding fuel price protesters in November as “vandals” and called for them to reveal the “disastrous” death toll from the protests. These actions are particularly notable because they are rioting against those who raised them — “the Godfathers of the conservativism camp,” says Faghih.

It is exactly these types of internal criticisms laced with nationalism and resistance that are critical for foreign governments like the U.S. to recognize and appreciate — but at the same time, to stay clear of leveraging for their own interests.

The Trump administration, of course, has chosen to do exactly the opposite. Each and every angry protest in Iran is closely monitored and exploited, whether it be through shrewd tweets from the U.S State Department account sympathizing with Iranian women’s rights activists, to cozying up with the MEK, a controversial Iranian dissident group whose singular goal is to overthrow Iran’s government through war. Some Canadian and British MPs have also taken the same approach.

While government officials have been impacted, it is more the Iranian people that have suffered immeasurably through decades of U.S. imposed sanctions. The International Monetary Fund estimates Iran’s economy to have shrunk by 9.5 percent in 2019, nearly double the 4.8 percent contraction already experienced in 2018. The IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook report shows the country will experience zero percent economic growth in 2020.

And with Washington threatening to punish any private companies or banks that work with Iran, life-saving medicines have been prevented from getting in. Now, with the added threat of the coronavirus — which has already killed 26 Iranians — Human Rights Watch warns that Iran will be unable to contain its spread and reduce its ability to mobilize international support.

It’s well past time to evaluate the utility of these broad-based sanctions on Iran that only end up hurting the Iranian people while entrenching the power of those already running a corrupt system. While top officials laugh off U.S. penalties, the suffering of 82 million people continues, and their anger is palpable. Political reform is desperately needed; it should come, but only from within will it carry the legitimacy needed for the best chance to succeed.