Our author travelled to Iran in 2014, but wishes to remain anonymous due to government restrictions on journalists and visas.
Karaj is a large wealthy suburb of Tehran. Officially, due to the latest redrawing of boundaries, Karaj is actually the capital of an entirely different county and ranks as Iran’s fourth largest city. As a commuter town, Karaj is home to the burgeoning middle class that is keeping the Iranian internal economy afloat. While the high unemployment rate is hitting the poorest hard, the knock-on effect is now affecting even those considered well-off. The middle-class liberal youth, who are the spring of hope for the emergence of any type of secular progressive Iranian state, are having their futures crippled by the international community.
While international sanctions against Iran focus primarily on oil sales and equipment that could be used for the production of enriched uranium, it is still incredibly difficult for Western companies to operate or sell to the Islamic Republic. The same is true for Iranian business attempting to operate internationally. These strict limitations along with the inability for international banks to hold Iranian funds, allowed for a resilient Iranian production sector to emerge. This sector emerged to build and create their own versions of what was banned from import. However, since 2002, sanctions have become progressively stricter with each passing year, with the oil embargoes particularly crippling to the national economy.
With 44% of Iran’s 80 million strong population under 25 there is a huge market for high quality western brands amongst the middle class. The increased prevalence of the internet, and Iran’s failure to maintain a ‘Great Firewall’, has resulted in the Iranian middle class obtaining an increasingly western outlook and attitude. This has been illustrated clearly over the past year as 2014 was the staging ground for a number of clashes between government forces and a liberal youth in the online battlefield. Co-opting their own internet trend, young women in Iran posted publicly taken selfies on Facebook and Instagram where they weren’t wearing the compulsory hijab. Even a globally unifying event such as the World Cup brought with it problems for the hardline Islamist government who banned it being shown at public venues for fear of showing females in the crowd sporting un-Islamic dress. To cap this off, international media picked up on the story of the Iranian ‘Happy’ video producers being arrested for dancing in public, a crime against the state.
This active defiance has been taken up middle class youth of Iran as their responsibility, one which they undertake at every opportunity. Returning to Karaj, one merely needs to visit one of the hundreds of cafes and restaurants to see this urbanised progressive youth fighting the system. The loosely, stylishly wrapped ‘bad hijab’ has become the symbol of resistance, the scenic viewing points of Damavand their plotting place and the secretive party bus tours the delivery system for spreading the call. You barely need to scratch the surface of Iranian culture to witness this resistant culture.
Sanctions are touching every fragment of an attempt at normal life in Iran.
These Persians are the key to Iranian re-integration into the international community. Yet, the policies of sanctions designed to do exactly that are pushing them further from the fold. Embargoes and restrictions on international business are so strict that even breakfast is impacted by the policies of the US and Europe, with goods as mundane as Nutella forced to be smuggled in at extortionate cost from Turkey. Sanctions are touching every fragment of an attempt at normal life in Iran. The impact is clear as one talks to any of the young people sitting in cafes and restaurants. Any queries about their job or those of their friends draw discrete grimaces. It soon becomes apparent that their friends aren’t here, so many of them have left. With a quarter of all young people unemployed, emigration is an obvious option. In fact, for the middle class liberal youth, Tehran actively encourages it. Emigrated dissidents pose a lot less immediate threat than those roaming the streets of the city.
Iranians are facing some of the toughest conditions for emigration in the world. Emigration for Iranians is a more permanent affair. Claiming political or sexual refugee asylum in the West is a relatively straightforward process, as straightforward as any asylum request could be. However, choosing this option means leaving one’s family behind, for as long as Iranian state deems it necessary. For those who fail to obtain legal asylum, the underground refugee trafficking networks is a well-trodden path. Despite the abysmal rates of success, Iranian refugees make up a large portion of those attempting to enter Australia by boat. The Iranians on board are a stark difference from the majority of the occupants – namely desperately poor South East Asians. In contrast, it is predominantly wealthy or middle class young Iranians attempting to take this route. The question of why this privileged group would be willing to submit themselves to such horrendous conditions is partly due to the attitude of the West to Iran.
For those with an Irish passport, the difficulties for Iranians to obtain a legal, non-asylum, visa in Europe, is almost impossible to comprehend. The stories of incredibly difficult ambassadors forcing families jumping through extraordinary hoops to guarantee a student visa for a child are commonplace. The unbelievable situations where visas are revoked last minute after months of interviews and checks are normalised to this generation of Iranians. The result is crushing, all the effort and will dedicated in the attempt to start a new life in Europe only to be told that the country does not want you. Stories of broken dreams echo around the city.
Crippled to live a life of unemployment, surviving off their parents or seek a life in exile, perhaps never to see your family again. These are the real decisions facing the youth. While the state remains the oppressor, they see others at fault too. For the youth, it is the result of US actions and their insistence on harsh sanctions, a statement that is repeated again and again. Life is becoming increasingly difficult. They don’t support their government but fear a revolution. Their parents have passed on the stories, the deaths of thousands in the wake of 1979 is not some distant folklore but an immediate past. The sanctions could be accepted if the countries imposing them were willing to allow students who they should support travel and live legally. For an Iranian, every option appears blocked, either by their own oppressive state, or by some grandiose ‘international community’.