Iran must not be plunged again into the nightmare of conflict
US-imposed economic sanctions and internal corruption already taking a heavy toll
A woman in Tehran walks away from a mural of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: US sanctions take a deep toll. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty
The possibility of US military intervention in Iran is frightening. I come from a generation of Iranians who experienced war first-hand. The eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) had a devastating impact on Iran. Iranians and Iraqis lost lives and loved ones in senseless violence.
One of my first vivid memories is of standing on a mound of mud beside a large opening in the ground. My aunts and grandmother are around me clad in black chadors; they wail and scream while trying to throw themselves into the open grave. It is my father’s funeral. A young medical doctor, he was shot while working in a hospital at one of the war’s fronts. I remember sitting beside my mother who was faint from crying, and taking in her scent of rose water and sweat. The themes of my childhood were death and martyrdom. We sang for fallen martyrs in school and we went to martyr’s funerals as our fathers, uncles, brothers and neighbours’ sons died.
Heartbreakingly, there are still millions of children today who know too well what war is. Children from Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine are growing up like my generation did – with nightmares of bombardments and death. For years, even after having moved to Ireland, my recurring nightmare was of being shot.
Now, while factions within the US and Iran assume the posture of war, people in Iran face the bleak prospect of conflict again.
US-imposed economic sanctions on Iran, coupled with widespread internal corruption in the country, have already taken their toll on average Iranians who are struggling to make ends meet. The Iranian currency lost more than 60 per cent of its value against the US dollar in the last year. The prices of some goods have been inflated by 50-60 per cent.
Increased unemployment in Iran and decreased access to medicine are also knock-on effects of the economic uncertainty driven by the punitive sanctions. Some European banks and companies refuse to be involved with pharmaceutical supply to Iran due to concerns that they will become tangled in the net of sanctions in the process – alongside private stockpiling and profiteering ordinary Iranians suffer. Still, following the recent course of military escalation, the US has threatened to impose major new sanctions this week.
This context of bellicosity and the threat of military engagement has been used by the Iranian state as a pretext to crack down on Iranian human rights and civil society activists. At the time of the Iran-Iraq war, under a similar logic of internal security, thousands of Iranian political prisoners were executed. Mass executions were carried out in Iranian prisons between 1981 and 1989. Political prisoners, especially from leftist opposition factions and religious minorities, were shot or hanged. In March of this year, Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric who sat on the committee that ordered many of these executions in 1988, was appointed head of the Iranian judiciary.
Iran’s human rights record is dismal. Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who represented other human rights activists and anti-mandatory hijab protesters, has been sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen separated from her husband and daughter in the UK, has been in prison since 2016. She is currently on hunger strike. The human rights and anti-death penalty campaigner Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment in 2016. She was recently denied medical attention despite her serious medical needs. Religious minorities, in particular the Baha’is and the Sufi dervishes, remain persecuted. Military intervention will not correct these injustices, and neither will it solve the problems caused by Iran’s current course of political influence in the region. Both demand political responses.
The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was an excellent step in this direction. Now the drumbeats of war reverberate like aftershocks following an ill-considered US withdrawal from the deal in 2018. The diplomatic foundation to address nuclear architecture, which the EU and others poured so much work into, has cracked badly. In its place the unconscionable and irrational logic of economic and military violence has been substituted. For Iran this will be not salvific or liberating.
Hawkish ideological factions within the US, led by its national security adviser, John Bolton, and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, have incredibly returned to an argument of preventative warfare on spurious grounds similar to those which led to the debacle of the Iraq War. However, the fact that US economic and security interests do not benefit from military action against Iran, coupled with a countervailing aversion to additional military entanglement in the Middle East on the part of some American conservatives, seems to have been enough to barely avert a retaliatory strike in the aftermath of a US RQ4 Global Hawk drone being shot down by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (Sepah Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami) last week.
However, should he sense even some possibility of political gain, President Donald Trump is clearly poised to parade himself as a military patriarch. The scales are so delicately balanced. Yet in war there is only loss.
Dr Roja Fazaeli is assistant professor in Islamic civilisations at the department of near and Middle Eastern studies at Trinity College Dublin