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Reporter's Notebook: Here's How Iran Is Functioning In The Face Of Sanctions

Tajrish market, located in northern Tehran
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
Tajrish market, located in northern Tehran

Is Iran anywhere near collapse?

Amir Mohebbian doesn't think so. The conservative Iranian political thinker and news editor said so in Tehran, even though U.S. economic sanctions have blocked most of the refined oil and other imports on which Iran relies. "The situation in the economy is not good," he said, "but not so bad that [it will] kill us."

The United States has been hoping the "maximum pressure" campaign launched after President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear agreement will force Tehran to change its foreign policy in places from Lebanon to Syria to Yemen. To this idea, Mohebbian shrugged: "Why should we?"


It would be easy to dismiss Mohebbian's analysis as Iranian spin. Yet seven days of interviewing dozens of people in Tehran and its surroundings this month offers at least some evidence to support his confidence, for the moment.

Tehran, a megacity of more than 14 million, appears vibrant. Stores are well stocked, though prices have soared through inflation. New stores and restaurants have opened to serve the elite, even if they're not always full of customers. New buildings are under construction, even if the progress of some has been slow. Monday evening of last week, the night before a holiday, it took three hours for NPR's vehicle to move about 10 miles through the city; streets were choked with cars as people drove out of town toward their ancestral homes or vacation.

Near Tehran's Tajrish Square, we walked into a meat market. The manager, Abdolah Sabote, said the price of veal has tripled in a short time. His expenses have risen along with his sale prices, so it's hard to profit from the price increases. He said that his family had been in this business for generations and that he'd never seen such a difficult and unstable time; he called the past two years a "catastrophe." Yet we were in a brand-new market, with new glass meat cases and exposed brick walls. The family had opened this new branch of their business just a few months ago. Apparently they found nothing in the economic crisis that was serious enough to stop them.

How could Iran be functioning in the face of devastating U.S. sanctions? Part of the answer is that it's early. The U.S. government imposed new sanctions more than a year ago, but they're likely to last much longer than that. Trump's presidential term lasts another year and a half, and he's seeking reelection. Even if he were to lose, his successor might not lift the sanctions.

Part of the answer is also that Iran has economic advantages beyond its oil. It's a big country, with more than 80 million people, many of them highly educated. Its economy is more diverse than that of some countries. Driving west of the capital city, we passed complexes of auto factories that stretched for miles. There is a tech industry and a rich history of agriculture. And Iran is historically a trading nation, whose business leaders now have many years of experience evading sanctions.


Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. and other nations imposed sanctions on Iran's oil-rich neighbor, Iraq. It was a much smaller country, with a less diverse economy, and under Saddam Hussein, it had a more extreme version of one-man rule. Yet sanctions never brought down Saddam, who was not dislodged until the U.S. military invaded in 2003. Devastating as U.S. sanctions are now, it's reasonable to think that grinding down Iran's economy could be even harder.

Even if Iran's economic crisis were to trigger social unrest, the clerics who wield ultimate authority have a monopoly on the power of the state. They have used it to jail critics and even people who may be seen as potential threats. They censor the Internet. There is no freedom of speech or of the press as it would be understood in the West. Newspapers offer a limited range of views, as editors and reporters try to calculate how much they can get away with saying; they know the state can shut them down at any time.

When we interviewed three women at a cafe in the city of Karaj, outside Tehran, they were sitting at a table by a second-floor window and invited us to slide into the booth. Early in the conversation, one, Yalde, wondered if she could get in trouble and made a barely audible joke about "the regime" under her breath. She then offered a different view out loud. She did not contradict herself — she did not suddenly defend the regime — but instead changed the subject to the United States. Her friend Fatimeh helped out, asking why I was so interested in Iran's troubles when the United States has its own problems, such as racism. NPR is not using their family names because Iran has punished dissent in the past.

Yet in our interviews, we also heard some reasons for Iran's leadership to worry. The three women in the cafe said they were law students. One said she was attracted to law by the opportunity to defend the accused. Yet all three agreed that the courts are corrupt. Government mismanagement and corruption have become so pervasive in recent years that political leaders have been forced to allow public discussion of it.

We heard people in several areas and from many walks of life blame corruption and mismanagement for their troubles, rather than the United States. The meat market manager who has been hurt by inflation seemed barely interested in sanctions. "We have our own domestic problems," he said.

In a park in a working-class area of southern Tehran, some people told us they were ruled by an out-of-touch elite. Some even criticized Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by name — something I've rarely heard in previous visits to Iran over the past decade.

The truth is that Iran, despite its relative isolation, faces many of the global pressures seen elsewhere: urbanization, technological change, climate change, income inequality, populism. Its government must now manage these pressures with the added difficulty of U.S. sanctions. The Iranian public will feel it if the government fails to do so. And there is no doubt that some portion of the population was already disillusioned with the experiment in clerical rule that Iran has sustained since its 1979 revolution.

In a park in Karaj, we met an extended family that had spread out a blanket for a picnic. At first glance, they were a passably prosperous middle-class family, colorfully dressed and with healthy children, enjoying glasses of an Iranian yogurt drink on a perfect afternoon. The family had come to Karaj for a sort of vacation, seeking a break from the extreme heat of southern Iran, where they live.

Yet it took only a few minutes of conversation to suggest how fragile their prosperity was. Two of the men were brothers who said they had lost their import-export business nine months ago. Another relative was a divorced woman who had trained as a beautician to support herself and her daughter. She didn't think she could do so in Iran. She was trying to figure out how to make it to Germany.

One of the men, Amir, said the family was divided into two camps: "pro-Western people" and "patriots." He said the "pro-Westerners" wanted to flee Iran, while "patriots" (like him) were determined to stay.

A relative, Maryam, disagreed. She said she had been to Europe and it was simply better there than under Iran's rule by "mullahs." You would not divide us that way if you knew more, she said, and the only reason you lack information is that we do not have freedom of expression.

Iran doesn't. But for all the pressures on them, Iranians find ways to express themselves.

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