How have economic sanctions impacted daily life in Iran?

January 25, 2014 at 10:38 PM EDT
Since November the news about Iran has focused on the deal to limit that country's nuclear program. But what is life like for average Iranians? NewsHour Weekend correspondent William Brangham reports on how sanctions have impacted daily life for the people of Iran.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Since November the news about Iran has been almost exclusivley about the deal to limit that country’s nuclear program in exchange for the West easing some economic sanctions.  Our own william brangham has been in Iran for most of the last two weeks.  While he was there we asked him to share his observations about life in that country of nearly 80 million people.  I began by asking him about those economic sanctions, and if they seem “crippling” as the western press often describes them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: If you hadn’t told me before I came here that Iran was under this quote “crippling sanctions regime,” you would really have no idea from walking around on the streets. The streets are packed, there is traffic everywhere, the stores are full, the grocery stores are packed with goods.  So on the surface, you really have no sense that this country is under this regime of sanctions.  That said, at the Tajrish Market in northern Tehran, we met a 54 year-old shop owner. His name is Hamid Aflaghi and he owns a store that sells soap and toiletries and household cleaning products, and he said that the real problem with the Iranian economy is inflation. And in fact, across the country the prices for consumer goods and everyday items have gone through the roof.  At the very same time, the value of the money that the people use here – the rial – has completely plummeted. Aflaghi told me that the prices of the products in his shop — every single one of them — have doubled or tripled in the last couple of years.  Just one example: he said that a Dove bar of soap — a single bar of soap — a few years ago cost about 1,500 rials. Now, that same bar of soap costs 5,000 rials. Of course, this makes it very difficult for customers to buy as much as they used to, and his business has really suffered.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Of course that inflation is connected to the economic sanctions, but are all Iranians feeling pinched?

WIILLIAM BRANGHAM: The upper-middle class, and certainly the wealthy in Iran have been doing very well, and there is evidence of that everywhere. We went into one electronics bazaar in the middle of downtown Tehran, and it was like an electronics bazaar out of New York City. You could not believe the amount of products that were available for sale: Apple products, Samsung, the latest mobile phones. I mean, it was a remarkable site to see. Inside this mall, one store owner that sells mostly Mac products told me that he has this very special Bluetooth headset – the latest thing he said – that is only available at Apple stores in New York City, according to him, and his store in this mall in Tehran.  So, a fairly good sign of affluence going on in certain parts of the Iranian society. We had a fairly interesting experience when we were in this mall: while we were walking around in the hallway, the evening call for prayer from the local mosque was piped through the loudspeakers in the mall, and here we were in this moment, where people were gawking over all the latest iPhones and iPads, and yet you hear this thousand year old tradition, the azaan, the call to prayer, coming through the loudspeakers.  It was just this collision of cultures, where this ancient tradition is butting up against what is really the pinnacle of western consumerism.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are the sanctions leading to shortages, say for example medicine?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We went to a hospital in downtown Tehran – it is actually a Jewish charity hospital in the middle of the city – and there we met Dr. Ciamak Morsadegh, and he is this fascinating character. He is this big, burly, chain-smoking Jewish doctor — yes, there are about 30,000 Jews in Iran. He is working in a Jewish hospital, that’s you know, catering mostly to lower and middle class Iranians in Tehran. In his office, he has portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini on one wall and Moses and his brother on the other. So, a very, very interesting guy, and he described to us that yes, because of sanctions, he’s had a very difficult time getting a lot of the medications that he needs for his patients. He said it’s not so much that there are prohibitions on selling the medicines. In fact, the US Treasury Department offers exemptions for those things. He says that it’s because the financial transactions that are prohibited by sanctions means that western pharmaceutical companies, for the most part, will not do business with Iranian firms. And so there is this shortage of very specific drugs that he has a very hard time getting. He said it is really a problem.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Did you meet other people who said they were affected by the sanctions?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Yes, we did see a few examples. One of those examples we found in the city of Isfahan, it’s the ancient capital of Iran. It is about a five to six hour drive south of Tehran, and there we met a young man, whose name is Morteza Roghani. He has an advanced degree in mechanical engineering, and he used to work in the auto industry. He worked at his family business that made parts for motors. Sanctions very specifically targeted Iran’s automobile industry. And so, a lot of jobs have been lost and that industry has really sort of been contracted quite considerably. So, this young man gets out of that business and he joins his father’s shoe business. So, he is now a mechanical engineer using his skills to design and manufacture new shoes. He makes these very cool wing-tipped shows and things like that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So many Americans have heard that the Iranian government censors the internet. In your time there what did you see?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The internet is heavily regulated. The government has pretty strict controls over what sites you can visit and what sites you can’t. If you try to access a site that is blocked, like Twitter or Facebook, what pops up is this government website that basically says, “This site is blocked,” and it offers you a sort of helpful list of other websites you might prefer to visit instead. Most Iranians, however, can get around this by using what are known as VPSs. They are called Virtual Private Networks, and it basically allows you to create your own small internet out of your own computer, and it allows you to bypass a lot of these restrictions. The logic behind the government’s censorship of the internet is not totally clear and it does not always make sense. Sometimes there are strange inconsistencies in the way they enforce it. For example, NPR is blocked, but PBS is not. NBC News is not blocked, but ABC News is. So, it is sometimes hard to understand exactly what is going on there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And I’ve read that social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook, are censored as well.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The irony about blocking Twitter and Facebook in Iran is that the current administration, Rouhani’s Administration, is actually one of the most active users of social networks, among the Iranian governments in the past. Rouhani has a very active Twitter account. Foreign Minister Zarif has a very busy Facebook page, and they are constantly posting messages on there. And there is a funny story about a man named Jack Dorsey, who is one of the founders of Twitter in America. He sent President Rouhani a tweet saying, basically, “Mr. President, glad you are using Twitter, but can the people of Iran actually read your tweets?” President Rouhani, in his style, wrote back, very casually, “Good evening Jack,” in a tweet and then basically did not answer the question.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what is behind the government’s desire to censor social media?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Some believe that the censorship of these social networking sites in particular, stem from the 2009 protests, which took place all over Iran, after President Ahmadinejad’s last heavily contested election. And Twitter, especially, was used to help get the word out about the rallies, marches, and events.  Some have argued that part of the government’s desire to censor the internet is so that they can stop that kind of  – what they think of as “dissent” – from getting out there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You said you met a man there, who was part of these protests…

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We went to meet a man named Saeed Laylaz. He is a very prominent Iranian economist and journalist, and we went to talk to him principally about the impact of sanctions on the Iranian economy. But several years ago Saeed was also involved in those election protests, and he was convicted by Ahmadinejad’s government, and sent to the notorious Evin Prison. Evin Prison is a place that looms quite large in the Iranian imagination. It was a prison built by the Shah. People have been executed and tortured in this place. He spent over a year in that prison, including four months in solitary confinement, where he didn’t see a single human being, in a very, very small cell – six foot by five foot kind of cell. At the end of our interview, we went into his library and there on the wall we saw this wooden carving. And Saeed told us that this was a gift – a handmade gift – from a prisoner that he met inside of Evin Prison, and he took it down off the wall and read the inscription to us. It says, “As you pass through this desert of terror, pass it in good health. When you reach the blossoms and rain give them our greeting.” As Saeed said, here is a message to everyone from a prisoner inside of one of Iran’s notorious prisons.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And finally, William, have you seen or felt any anti-Americanism while you have been there?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: No, none at all. Our interactions with Iranians across the board have been overwhelmingly positive. People are genuinely curious about the United States. I mean, there are just not that many westerners who come through here, especially Americans. So, we are kind of viewed as a rare bird here. People want to know what is America like; what does America think of Iran? They want to offer their impressions…  so our interactions have been incredibly positive.  The few instances that you do see it — and I think it does exist in Iranian society, we just haven’t come across it — but the few instances where we have seen touches of it are in there more “official versions” of it.  For example, there are murals all over Tehran. You see these faces everywhere you go, looking down on you – huge, huge faces. Most of them are either the Ayatollahs – the former or the current, or the intellectual leaders of the Islamic revolution, or heroes of the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. These are volunteers or family members that went to fight Iraqis. The only mural that I saw that had showed anti-Americanism was this one.  In it, President Obama is standing back-to-back with one of the most famous villains from Shiite Islam. This is a guy who is believed to have murdered in cold blood the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. And the mural is basically indicating that Obama is like this guy; his hand may be outstretched in a gesture of friendliness, but you can’t trust him.

HARI SREENIVASAN: William Brangham from Tehran. Thanks so much.