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For many Iranians, nuclear talks aren't about the sanctions

US officials insist economic sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table. Ordinary Iranians agree they've had an effect – but say they've only harmed the negotiating process. 

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    In this file photo, an Iranian woman carries her baby past a pharmacy along Vali Asr Avenue in central Tehran, Iran, on Dec. 7, 2013. US-led sanctions over Iran's disputed nuclear program have led to shortages of some drugs.
    Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images/File
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Did years of US-engineered sanctions bring Iran to the nuclear negotiating table?

American officials firmly say “yes.”

“Because of the unprecedented sanctions that we put in place that really did have a crippling effect on Iran’s economy, they have come to the table and they have negotiated seriously,” President Barack Obama said earlier this month.

Iranian officials, just as firmly, say “no.” They note that, despite the sanctions – the heaviest of which have been in place since 2011 – the number of centrifuges installed to enrich uranium in Iran has jumped more than 60-fold in a decade.

“It is important for the West to understand that sanctions have never contributed to the resolution of this issue. Sanctions are not a part of the solution. Sanctions are the most important part of the problem,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said shortly after Mr. Obama's statement.

Iran and six world powers are in Vienna trying to conclude 2-1/2 years of talks about Iran's nuclear program. While the real answer on sanctions' impact will be debated long after the Nov. 24 deadline passes for a deal, ordinary Iranians don’t connect the cause-and-effect dots so clearly.

A few strides off the tree-lined Vali Asr Avenue in downtown Tehran, in a busy city-run polyclinic, Dr. Iraj Karimi says sanctions have had a profound psychological as well as physical effect on his patients.

It is no secret that medical costs have surged in recent years, with the prices of drugs and instruments rising as US and EU sanctions bit harder. Many top-quality European pharmaceuticals disappeared from the shelves; expectations for quality care have been adjusted.

“Iranians aren’t poor people,” says Dr. Karimi. “But the reality is, the pressure now is higher. They suffer inside, there is stress on society.

“The most important thing is easing the pressure,” he says. “Obama knows this, and we know this. But in fact, it’s not like the [1980s] Iran-Iraq war, when missiles and bombs were falling.”

But the doctor, sitting in his white lab coat in his examination room, does not connect sanctions-induced hardship to Iran’s willingness to negotiate, nor to compromise on its nuclear program. Iran “would be negotiating without sanctions,” asserts Karimi, saying that, in fact, the sanctions undercut the negotiation process.

“Now we are not looking at the US officials and diplomats in a good way. We don’t trust them because of sanctions – this is the reality,” he says. “The sanctions aren’t on the government of Iran, they have all the best medical care anyway. So the impact is on the people.”

Mismanagement, not sanctions

Even economists disagree about how much sanctions encouraged Iran’s decision to engage in 2-1/2 years of nuclear talks.

“Obviously the situation in the economy of Iran, although it’s very difficult, it’s much, much better than 15 months ago,” says economist Saeed Laylaz, adding that the timing of the improvements coincided with the election of centrist President Hassan Rouhani. “It shows very clearly that the sanctions cannot be a clear element of our economic crisis and problems.”

Primary responsibility for Iran’s dire economic straits, he asserts, is “mismanagement” from the former government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which squandered an $800 billion oil windfall over eight years, argues Mr. Laylaz. “We are solving our problems, step by step, day by day.”

But Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economics professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., says recent improvements in Iran’s economy are also due to a partial easing of sanctions included in a November 2013 interim nuclear agreement signed in Geneva.

“It is hard to deny that Rouhani’s success in lowering inflation, stabilizing the exchange rate, and reviving the banking sector have pushed the economy forward,” Professor Salehi-Isfahani writes in a recent analysis for LobeLog.com. “At the same time, reversals in auto production and imports of intermediate goods suggest that sanctions relief was the main reason for the recent economic spurt.”

'Can't trust' Americans

Iranians have mixed views about the measures that impact their lives every day.

At one of Tehran’s largest cancer treatment facilities, Mariam is undergoing her fifth round of chemotherapy.

“My costs have been very high – it’s not affordable,” the young woman says. Wearing a pink hospital gown and a black head scarf while family visit, she says a new government health insurance plan means she pays just 15 percent of actual costs.

But that solves only part of the problem. She has to scour drugstores for medicines that these days come from Russia, India, or Iran, “but these are very difficult to find.”

“Targeted sanctions? Sometimes they should think about us,” says Mariam. She believes sanctions had little impact on Iran’s decision to negotiate and she doesn’t want talks to succeed – even though failure could mean more US sanctions, and more personal difficulties.

“We can’t handle the Americans, we can’t trust them,” says Mariam, adding that Iran’s nuclear program should continue unfettered, without a deal, on a “great path and get better every day.”

“I know my costs will increase, but we still can’t handle the Americans,” she says.

Similar cynicism – directed toward US and Iranian authorities alike – is expressed by another man at the hospital, who is visiting his brother. 

“It’s all nonsense that Iran wants to make a bomb. It’s an accusation by the West to put pressure on us; they don’t want us to improve or to be independent of them,” says the man, a worker who asked not to be named.

Sanctions “had their effects,” he says, but Iran only started to negotiate when they “were feeling pushed aside, turning into [isolated] North Korea and [feeling] it was affecting their image in the world.”

“We’re fighting in southern Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq – they don’t care about us, they don’t care about the people,” the man says of Iranian authorities.

Pro-nuclear overkill

For some, the nuclear standoff is an unnecessary battle.

“When [the first uranium] enrichment happened, everybody was happy. But they repeated it so much – even in Mashhad we have a ‘Nuclear Energy Square,’ ” says an architecture student in Iran’s northeastern shrine city, decrying what he sees as pro-nuclear achievements overkill.

“It’s been repeated so much, it’s lost its meaning,” says the university student, who asked not to be named.

He argues that sanctions are the only reason Iran is negotiating, though Iran must not be seen as weak or caving in to Western demands.

“Emotionally I don’t want that to happen,” says the student. “But rationally, we don’t want to become like Iraq, where sanctions led to war, disintegration, and the collapse of security.”

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