(Persia Digest) - Lamal Chinar smiles as she operates a fairground ride in the snow-capped Mount Tochal, north of the ever-encroaching outskirts of Tehran. Schoolchildren on a trip away from the crawling traffic and smog of the Iranian capital scream with joy.
But beneath the surface she worries. Like so many of her compatriots, Chinar is both bystander and victim in America’s expanding drive to immobilise the Iranian economy through sanctions.
Her personal concerns are twofold – how to find the medicines her mother needs for a severe heart condition and how to transfer her money in and out of Iran.
“Iran does not produce the statins she needs,” she says. “I have a brother who has a business visa to travel to France, and he brings back as much as he can each time he goes abroad. We are lucky. Many people cannot go abroad. They go from pharmacy to pharmacy, and often go without. It is very painful.”
Most of Chinar’s income comes from work she does as a coder in Canada. No international commercial bank will touch money linked to sanctioned Iran, so in order to access her Canadian salary she has to take her chances on the black market, where there is a risk of her transfers being spirited away from her. As a result she only transfers small amounts a time, adding to the cost.
A GP standing nearby concurs. “We have some of the worst cancer levels in the world, partly due to the diet and partly due to the pollution,” says Zarha Talebi. “The price of petrol is so cheap here that everyone drives.
“We produce a lot of our own medicine, but there are shortages. Very few people have regular check-ups, and if they are diagnosed we cannot get the medicine. It is the ordinary people that suffer,” she added.
Tehran has excellent modern hospitals, oases of calm amid the cacophony of Tehran’s streets, but a hospital short of medicine is as effective as an army without ammunition. Queues regularly mount up as patients return to see if their medicine is in stock.
In theory, Iranian purchases of humanitarian goods such as medicines are exempted from US sanctions, just as they were under the international sanctions regime that was lifted after the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
But the US, now in sole charge of the design of renewed sanctions, appears to have taken a deliberately ambiguous approach to how the system of humanitarian exemptions works. An international roadshow put on by the Americans across Europe was designed, diplomats say, to provide spine-chilling warnings to companies and governments of the consequences of sanctions busting.
As a result, risk-averse foreign drug companies and international banks, eager to avoid accidentally triggering penalties, have acted with caution.
The US approach is also affecting shippers. One Tehran medical source claims DHL will no longer transfer cancer patients’ samples abroad. The new legal complications, along with panic buying and hoarding, mean some drugs are increasingly difficult to find. The collapse in the rial, a problem linked but pre-dating sanctions, has seen the cost of medicines rise exponentially.
Speaking in the ornate splendour of the ministry of foreign affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister and bete noire of Iranian hardliners, tells the Guardian: “The US had imposed financial sanctions on Iran and when you want to transfer money, the bank does not ask whether it goes for food or other data-x-items – that is why sanctions always hit food and medicines.
“The US is not living up to its promises. We believe all the sanctions are anyway unlawful and against UN security council resolutions, but the US is not even truthful to the commitment they have made to us. At the end of the day sanctions always hurt ordinary people. That is their purpose.”
Further compounding the situation is a decision by Swift, the international banking payment system based in Belgium, to avoid Iranian products under US pressure.
The US national security adviser, John Bolton, says the extreme pressure is designed to make the pips squeak, even though Brian Hook, the state department’s special representative for Iran policy, in briefings to European reporters says the US has never targeted medicine or medical devices. The “regime’s attempts to mis-characterise these humanitarian exemptions are a pathetic effort to distract from its own corruption and mismanagement”, Hook says.
Whatever the cause, the economic crisis is playing out across Tehran. Unregulated house prices are spiralling out of control, as Iranians hoard assets due to a fall in the rial against the dollar of more than 75% since late 2017. Annual inflation – if the figures are credible – is about 37%.
As a result, as many as 3 million of Tehran’s workers now live miles away in satellite cities, adding to the pollution and the pressure on the capital’s roads.
In the Grand Bazaar, the carpet salesmen say their shops are empty as the collapse in the rial hits their trade. But they remain pragmatic.
“We have survived sanctions for 40 years. It is nothing new. It is how we live,” one says. They laugh at the idea that their rulers may be forced to succumb to a Saudi-US axis. “Iran is a lion. Saudi Arabia is a mouse,” says one, accusing the UK and US of trying to redraw the map of the Middle East. “There are countries with which we will trade – we will look east.”
But other Iranians express pain, and fear. “Everyone wants to leave – to get to Turkey,” says Amir Ali, a Chelsea supporter who runs a chicken restaurant. “We are desperate. There are no jobs. If you protest, they will kill you.”
Daryoush Mohammadion, an English teacher, says he sees no evidence that the sanctions will trigger an uprising, which appeared to be the thinking behind Donald Trump’s Game of Thrones-themed tweet announcing “Sanctions are Coming. November 5.”
“Trump is an arrogant, stupid, ignorant loudmouth,” he said as he sipped tea by Ferdows Garden in cosmopolitan northern Tehran next to the Iran Cinema Museum.
Mohammadion, who lived in Kentucky for many years selling Harley-Davidsons before he came home, added: “It is going to be tough here next year, especially for the young and old needing medicine.”
The IMF projects the Iranian economy to shrink by 1.5% this year and by 3% next. In May, before Trump announced sanctions, the IMF had projected 4.% growth.
Mohammadion does not see Iran imploding politically. “That is not how societies work. When you are attacked from the outside and have a common enemy you stick together. That is true all over the world. It is up to the Europeans to get out from under the dollar. The Europeans have got to realise that truth is money talks and bullshit walks. At the moment Europe is bullshit.”
Source: The Guardian
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