As Iran's presidential election approaches with the speed of an out-of-control train, its passengers are certainly curious about who's going to be the next conductor. Yet as they take in the political infighting that so consumes the country's ruling classes, ordinary Iranians understand that one of the most salient facts of life in Iran—the international sanctions regime—will not be on the ballot.
“The people have so many terrible problems like divorce, prostitution, addiction, and all kind of disputes," said Armin, who lives in Tehran. "If you focus on them, most problems are related to poverty. I think people had been very kind to each other 30 years ago, but now all they do is fight each other for nothing. Our problems are not important for the government as we live under a dictatorship and Fascism. And what do other countries do? They made our bad situation worse with sanctions.”
“Prices for almost all products have tripled since early 2012," he adds, "but our salaries have not changed. It made a tough situation for all people worse. Many Iranians do not have internet or satellite TV, so they don't know why it happened."
The sanctions regime has helped nourish a cottage industry of forgers and smugglers whose sole job is to circumvent sanctions. When it comes to Iran's vital export, oil, the most common trick is to disguise it as Iraqi. Iraq exports ample quantities of Iranian oil by trucking it over the border and then shipping it from Iraqi ports. Another way is to transfer oil the foreign-registered tankers at sea, and from there it can go unobstructed anywhere there is a market for it.
Having survived continuous political turmoil since the 1979 revolution, Iranian businesses are used to adversity. As a result, almost any good can be found somewhere in Iran—for a price. “The business of exporting goods to Dubai and then on to Iran is the Gulf’s region worst kept secret, and everyone is doing it—especially firms from the West,” said Iranian businessman in Iraqi Kurdistan. “There are many ways we can meet with business partners—in Turkey, in the Gulf, etc. All it takes is a go-between commission." In the end, he concludes, "it all drives up the so-called 'Iranian Premium.' If you want to have nice things or live in 21st century, you have to pay it.”
The upcoming elections in Iran are largely a mystery to international media, as outside journalists are not welcome and there are many instances of travelers are being denied tourist visas. I observed it personally at Iranian consulates in Istanbul and Erbil. “We had a Western journalist here a few weeks ago whose equipment was confiscated even though he had all the authorizations to film," said "Sadaf," who works at a western embassy in Tehran. "A few days later he got everything back and one of the officials even came to apologize."
If sanctions are designed to put Iranians at odds with their government, their collateral damage has had just the opposite effect, with many Iranians questioning the West's motives. “There is a lot of hypocrisy going on," says Sadaf, who uses a pseudonym. "Countries like Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea are much more dangerous than Iran. But Iran is sitting on a lot of oil and gas. Were Iran only cultivating strawberries, nobody would bother. The same thing applies to Iraq and even Afghanistan, both sitting on rich resources.”
The historical verdict on the sanctions that affect Iran's 75 million people remains due, yet the dynamic is hardly without precedent. In 1981, the West imposed sanctions on Poland when its Communist government declared martial law. During one of his weekly press conferences, regime spokesman Jerzy Urban assured the world that "No matter what happens with the sanctions it is not a concern, as the Polish government will always feed itself." That also appears to be the case with Iran.