When Iran signed its historic nuclear deal with the West in July last year, the prize was the end of sanctions after implementation, and the nation was exuberant. Mobile phones buzzed with messages of congratulations and text messages carrying discounts and specials heralding the nation’s opening for business.
However, last weekend, Iranians greeted the official lifting of those sanctions with far less fizz than expected. Apart from a few banks that held festivities, there was no mass pouring on to the streets of big cities, no great fanfare on state media and no passing around of sweets en masse, despite Iranians’ awareness of having stepped out from under one of the most crushing sanctions regimes of all time.]
“It is only the liberals and the government who are getting festive,” a family friend in Tehran said, adding that there was little celebratory atmosphere on the streets. “Most people are just waiting for things to get cheaper.”
Illustration: Mountain People
Much stands to change in Iran as a result, but the nation has important parliamentary elections next month and the mood of ordinary Iranians is clouded by doubts as to how quickly and meaningfully they are likely to feel any effects in daily life.
The high of last summer came from the symbolic power of knowing global ostracism was over, but, at present, the realities ahead still seem stark. Today, schools and businesses in a Tehran choked by winter smog started two hours later than usual, by official decree. Most Iranians worry only about prices coming down, and know that for the foreseeable future, it is the state itself and the nation’s business elite that are likely to be boosted.
The easing of sanctions, there is no doubt, will sooner or later mean economic growth on a scale Iran has not experienced in the past decade. The lifting of the two most onerous restrictions, which cut off Iran from the world banking system and curtailed its export of oil and gas, is to put Iranian oil back on the market and allow businesses to once again conduct foreign transactions, and secure insurance and letters of credit. This is likely to propel trade, ease foreign currency exchange and, in time, most hope, boost the Iranian rial, which has risen a smidgen against the US dollar in recent days.
Businesses in key sectors, such as petrochemicals, would have access again to crucial technologies, and the nation’s aviation industry, which flies a decrepit fleet often still bearing mottled 1970s upholstery, would be able to buy new Airbuses. Optimism about Iran’s future prospects would also make a sharp difference. Tehran’s property market is highly valued and booming, and a more secure economic climate would make buying and selling less fraught. That, along with an influx of Western companies and investors eager to strike it big in what is considered the “last major frontier market,” would encourage Iranians to contemplate ventures that under sanctions seemed only foolhardy.
However, while Tehran’s hotel lobbies may be full of foreign businessmen, ordinary Iranians are looking ahead to more tangible improvements. The nation’s tech-savvy young generation is eager for US products at fairer prices. If global citizenship is measured by the ability to buy an iPhone at non-extortionate retail cost, then the Iranian consumer is still aspiring. Most urgent, though, is the import of medicines; under sanctions, drugs for everything from diabetes to cancer to multiple sclerosis disappeared from Iranian pharmacies. In their place was either nothing, or faulty or expired Chinese or Indian equivalents. This is one of the key shifts for Iran’s 80 million people.
If the reaction in Iran in recent days has been muted, it is because Iranians are acutely aware of what is unlikely to change any time soon. Steadily rising prices for food and housing are unlikely to be reversed, despite Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’ s efforts to curb inflation. This is the overarching reality of Iran’s delicate, troubled economy and most Iranians know it would take years for macroeconomic growth to trickle down.
The other great ills of Iran are endemic to its political structure and Iranians know they are rewinding back to a time — pick any random, pre-sanctions moment in the late 2000s — when all was still decidedly not well. Censorship of the Internet and television, widespread corruption, crisis-level pollution and a state that was prone to barring many of the candidates for elections are just a few of the problems. As next month’s elections for parliament and the powerful Assembly of Experts near, Iran’s hardline Guardian Council has blocked many candidates from running.
It is these institutions that have some real hope of eventually bringing about what Iranians want most, which is economic growth harnessed to better, more accountable governance. Iranians know that it is mismanagement that would ultimately hinder Iran’s growth; some economists have estimated that only 20 percent of the nation’s economic woes have been due to sanctions.
“Thank you for your efforts, but why don’t you now reveal which officials are incompetent?” a woman from Tehran posted on Rouhani’s Instagram feed.
The lifting of sanctions signals for Iranians the end of an ordeal they viewed as bitterly unfair and which imposed on them a set of impoverished expectations. For a nation of such vast potential, with the most sizeable, skilled, educated, plugged-in middle-class in the whole of the Middle East, a nation with a vibrant tech startup sector, where people in even small border towns practice yoga, relief from being the human leverage to pressure the Iranian state to change is bittersweet.
The jubilance this week is mainly in the halls of the Rouhani administration and the punchy headlines of the liberal media, both of which are projecting on to the moment their political aspirations. Iranians themselves are mostly just getting on with things, acutely aware of how their lives and prospects have been damaged in all these intervening years.
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