Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times is currently writing across his recent journey across northern Iran. His first column on Thursday started gently with "Hugs From Iran" for Americans, but ended with political bite:
A shopkeeper — also with limited education, also reliant on government television for news --- told me that “all the nation backs the leader.”
Yet more common were those like the businessman in Adidas sandals and Ray-Ban sunglasses who scoffed, “The Iranian revolution was a mistake.” Or the separatist in Tabriz who has given up on Iran and wants the northwest of the country to join Azerbaijan. Or the man at a roadside rest stop who sharply criticized America for bullying Iran, but added, “our leaders have lost their marbles.” Or the woman who has abandoned prayer and religious fasting, explaining, “The biggest factor that has turned people against Islam is this government.”...
To me, Iran feels like other authoritarian countries I covered before they toppled. My guess is that the demise of the system is a matter of time — unless there’s a war between Iran and the West, perhaps ignited by Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear sites. That, I sense, would provoke a nationalist backlash and rescue the ayatollahs.
Now Kristof has kicked the hornets nest with his second piece, "Pinched and Griping in Iran". Extending the close of his previous column, his observations make an argument for US-led sanctions: they are causing enough grief for ordinary Iranians that the level of dissatisfaction with the regime will eventually lead to its downfall.
Other analysts have jumped in on what they see as a disconnect between Kristof's heart-warming embrace of the Iranian people and his effective support of their suffering. Hooman Majd responds:
And The Huffington Post's Beheshteh Farshi succintly tweets:
Pinched and Griping in Iran br>
....one lesson from my 1,700-mile drive around the country is that, largely because of Western sanctions, factories are closing, workers are losing their jobs, trade is faltering and prices are surging. This is devastating to the average Iranian’s pocketbook --- and pride.
To be blunt, sanctions are succeeding as intended: They are inflicting prodigious economic pain on Iranians and are generating discontent.
One factory owner, Hassan Gambari, who makes electrical panels, told me that he had had to lay off 12 of his 15 workers. Another, Masoud Fatemi, who makes cotton thread and textiles, said that Western sanctions had aggravated pre-existing economic problems.
“Prices have gone ridiculously high, so production is almost impossible,” he said. “Everything has become harder, more time-consuming and more expensive because of the sanctions.”
Fatemi said that an electrical inverter blew out a year and a half ago, closing one of his factory lines and costing him $500 a day. Because of sanctions, he said, he has been unable to get a replacement from the West, although he hopes to install one soon from South Korea.
In Tabriz, in the west, I chatted with the owner of a store selling Nike, Adidas and Saucony sneakers, hugely prized as status symbols. If a young man wants to find a girlfriend, the shop owner explained, the best bet is to wear Nikes.
But sales have dropped by two-thirds in the last year, he fretted. He added in disgust that some Iranians are in such penury that they attend parties wearing Chinese-made, fake Nikes.
In March, Iran was pushed out of Swift, a banking network for international payments, so the businessman now pays for his imports through the traditional hawala system. That’s an unofficial global network of money-traders. You lug a briefcase of cash to a hawala office in an Iranian bazaar and then ask for it to be made available in Beijing or Los Angeles. This is more expensive and less reliable than a bank transfer, but it’s now the main alternative.
“We are finding a loophole around sanctions,” a hawala trader told me. “The Iranian nation has no other option.”
Economic frustration is compounded because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been lifting subsidies for everything from bread to gasoline --- probably sound economic policy, but very unpopular.
Western sanctions have succeeded in another way: Most blame for economic distress is directed at Iran’s own leaders, and discontent appears to be growing with the entire political system. I continually ran into Iranians who were much angrier at their leaders on account of rising prices than on account of the imprisonment of dissidents or Bahais.
“We can’t do business as we used to, and our quality of life is getting worse,” one man, who lost his job as a salesman, said forlornly. “We blame our regime, not Western countries.”
Economic pressure also may be distracting people from other nationalist issues. For example, many ordinary Iranians side with their government on nuclear issues and are angry at assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. But people are much more focused on lost jobs and soaring prices.
“The economy is breaking people’s backs,” a young woman told me in western Iran.
I regret this suffering, and let’s be clear that sanctions are hurting ordinary Iranians more than senior officials. I’m also appalled that the West blocks sales of airline parts, thus risking crashes of civilian aircraft.
Yet, with apologies to the many wonderful Iranians who showered me with hospitality, I favor sanctions because I don’t see any other way to pressure the regime on the nuclear issue or ease its grip on power. My takeaway is that sanctions are working pretty well....
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