Tough talk, despair divide Tehran's streets as sanctions strike

A sea of protesters gathers outside the former US embassy in Iran. Hardline supporters of Iran's government,...

Posted: Nov 5, 2018 2:13 PM
Updated: Nov 5, 2018 2:13 PM

A sea of protesters gathers outside the former US embassy in Iran. Hardline supporters of Iran's government, bused into the center of Tehran for the yearly rally, are marching past wall-sized graffiti of a skull-faced Statue of Liberty while chanting "down with the USA."

The demonstration commemorates Iranian students' 1979 raiding of the embassy and their seizure of 54 American diplomats and citizens -- an act that severed relations between the two countries just months after Iran deposed the US-backed Shah and established itself as an Islamic Republic.

Ali Khamenei

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Hassan Rouhani

Near the protest platform where Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards commander Mohamad Ali Jafari is about to deliver a speech, six men re-enact a hostage-taking scene. All except one is covered in silver paint. An actor wearing police glasses draws his pistol, pointing it at a man painted in gold, a portrait of US President Donald Trump held to his face.

The message is not lost on the protesters. As the US imposed its latest round of sanctions Monday, the Islamic Republic appeared to tell its supporters that it still intends to bring America to its knees.

"I think Donald Trump is insane, and he can't do anything to us because we have Imam Khamenei, and he is the best person I have ever seen in my life," says a chador-clad Mobina Jari, 15, referring to the country's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

"People are gathering here to confront America," says Mullah Mohammed, who declines to disclose his full name for security reasons. The blue-eyed cleric stands with his back against a wall, as protesters carrying banners and effigies of Trump -- portrayed as a woman, an infant and, in one case, a turkey -- stream past. "The American people are different from the state. The Great Satan is the government.

"It's true that (the sanctions) create pressure for our innocent people, but our people are so resistant that they will pass these hardships."

On Monday, the US reimposed all sanctions against Iran that had been lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear agreement, with some temporary exemptions. President Trump said Sunday they were "the strongest sanctions that our country has ever issued."

After primarily targeting Iran's automotive and aviation industries with penalties this August, the November 5 sanctions hit Iran's oil and gas sector, its shipping industry and its banks. The ultimate goal of the measures, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is to bring Iran's oil exports to "zero."

Trump has said he hopes the chokehold will force Iran's government to renegotiate its 2015 nuclear deal, which relieved Iran of international sanctions in exchange for halting the country's uranium enrichment. The multilateral agreement was struck with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who has thrown his weight into keeping the accord afloat by rallying other governments party to the deal.

Despite the US State Department's repeated certifications that Iran was abiding by its end of the deal, the Trump administration withdrew from the accord in May 2015. Trump described it as a "horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made."

The move spurred an exodus of international companies, including European giants Total and Airbus, from Iran. The value of Iran's Riyal plummeted by around 70%, and inflation has spiraled.

Though no stranger to sanctions, Iran will deal with penalties of a slightly different flavor this time. Unlike the 2012 multilateral sanctions that targeted the administration of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over its uranium enrichment program, Trump's goals are more ambiguous.

"Back (in 2012) there was a deal which was on the horizon, and there was a ramp off for all sides in a face-saving manner," says Mohammed Ali Shabani, Iran Pulse Editor at Al-Monitor media website.

"This time the deal which was reached has been abrogated and the demands of the US go far beyond the nuclear issue to in effect demand total Iranian capitulation," Shabani adds.

In recent months, Trump has said he would be willing to hold talks with Iran's leadership "anytime they want." A renegotiation of the deal, he said, would comprehensively tackle Iran's foreign policy, particularly its support of proxy groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Iran's leadership has so far dismissed Trump's overtures. Supreme Leader Khamenei has publicly banned "any talks" with the US.

"Nobody wishes to negotiate with Trump," says Mullah Mohammed. "Trump is useless to negotiate with because he's definitely crazy and he cannot be trusted. Even the Europeans don't trust Trump."

A renegotiation of the nuclear deal, according to some analysts, would be an admission of the agreement's failure even as Iran continues to abide by its part of the deal.

"I think a lot of people understand that Rouhani's government is either not responsible (for the sanctions) or has a minor share of responsibility," says Iranian analyst Hamid Mousavi. "Iran has stayed in the nuclear deal even after the United States decided to withdraw, so a lot of Iranians don't really see how they can fix this and they're seeing Donald Trump as being responsible."

With no clear response to the sanctions, Iran appears willing to weather the storm, banking on an imminent change in American leadership. "It is difficult to see ordinary Iranians as well as the leadership be willing to abandon their entire foreign policy for the sake of a US president who may be gone in two years," says Shabani.

Meanwhile, the "resistance economy" -- a term coined by Khamenei -- is seeing a resurgence. The idea regards Iranian subsistence as a cornerstone of economic policy, allowing it to flout Western demands. Iran's leadership has been bandying the term about again in recent months.

A shifting political landscape

But amid widespread scorn for Trump's policies, popular support for the Iranian government also appears to be thinning. Government-sponsored rallies are dwindling in numbers, and the hardline base appears to comprise an increasingly older crowd, a demographic out of tandem with Iran's overwhelmingly young population.

This January, Iran was rocked by country-wide youth protests. The demonstrators were largely working class, a group typically considered the bedrock of the government's conservative base. Many tore down posters of Iran's clerical leadership. The protests were quelled within weeks but dealt a blow to the government's confidence in its broad-based support.

Women protesting Iran's compulsory headscarf have cropped up in town squares on almost a monthly basis this year, defying a police sweep of the female protesters. At Friday prayers in the University of Tehran, where the government's Ayatollahs and military chiefs deliver weekly sermons to supporters, the crowd has become smaller and older over the years.

One woman in Tehran's relatively affluent Tajrish square walks to a CNN crew volunteering to speak on camera. She says she predicts that the sanctions-ridden economy will remain in dire straits for "as long as the mullahs are in power," referring to Iran's ruling clergy.

"They must go. Believe me. Because we have no freedom, no work to do for our educated people," says the woman, who asked only to be identified as "an Iranian citizen."

Nearby, 26-year-old Samin Dodangeh prefers to roll her headscarf into the shape of a hat, barely skirting the mandatory head-cover rule. She works as a waitress at a coffee shop while pursuing a master of fine arts degree at the University of Tehran.

But since Trump announced his withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the materials she needs have become unaffordable. "I cannot paint anymore," she declares.

The situation, she says, has gone from bad to worse, and she adds that she would support taking up Trump's invitation to talks.

"People will be happy if there are negotiations. Why wouldn't they be happy?" says Dodangeh. "Look, I can't afford renting a place. I can't afford buying a place. I can't afford buying accessories anymore. I can't afford anything. I have to work more and more and I can pay for less. That's just sad."

Homemakers Maryam Golestani, 44, and Maryam Karami, 48, agree that negotiations offer a way out of their predicament.

"I very, very much fear the sanctions. I'm most worried about the younger generation and their jobs," says Karami.

"The governments should negotiate. There should be real commitment and negotiations from both sides, and they should be committed so that we Iranians are not made to suffer," says Golestani.

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