Let’s not beat about the bush. Renewed US sanctions on Iran have gone into effect and it’s justifiably a big story. For a start, it shows that Washington is willing to make good on its criticism of Iran’s leadership. Confirming this week that the sanctions would be re-imposed after withdrawing from the JCPOA nuclear deal in May, President Trump said Iran could “either change its threatening, destabilising behaviour and reintegrate with the global economy, or continue down a path of economic isolation.” Meanwhile, Washington’s bold step has also exposed a significant policy disagreement with Europe. Committed to the JCPOA, the foreign ministers of the E3 (UK, France and Germany) released a statement in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s announcement pledging “We are determined to protect European economic operators engaged in legitimate business with Iran.”
This is high diplomacy at its most exhilarating, shifting international relationships. No wonder the media is giving it such prominence. The New York Times’ headline declared “U.S. to Restore Sanctions on Iran, Deepening Divide With Europe,” warning that the renewal of US sanctions is “ratcheting up pressure on Tehran but also worsening relations with European allies.” Meanwhile, the BBC was one of many outlets to cover the story in detail, including Iranian President Rouhani’s claim that Washington had launched “psychological warfare against the Iranian nation.” The Telegraph’s piece by Ben Riley-Smith highlighted the European Union’s suggestion of a “blocking statute” to protect European businesses doing trade in Iran.
The situation and its ongoing fallout has also elicited strong opinions in the media, not only from a plethora of commentators, but also from the editorial pages of significant publications. In the UK, The Guardian warned that “The Trump administration’s policies, rhetoric and outright threats” would likely strengthen the hand of Iran’s leadership. Meanwhile, The Independent threw the ball into Tehran’s court, saying “Iran should offer an olive branch to Donald Trump before tensions escalate further.”
And of course, there is media speculation over what the future may bring, given the new reality. Especially for Iran’s economic future. The prognosis is extremely poor. As Samantha Raphelson at NPR notes, “Iran’s economy had already begun to suffer in anticipation of the sanctions… The rial currency has lost half its value since April, triggering massive inflation that reached 13.7 percent in June.” The truth is, that even when sanctions are taken out of the equation, Iran’s economy is in dire straits.
But this is nothing new. During the last decade, Iranians have become 15% poorer. The reality is, that the country faces potential economic ruin, not because of Washington’s steadfast re-imposition of sanctions, but because Tehran’s leaders have consistently opted to subsidize military adventurism rather than provide their own citizens with acceptable living standards. Iran’s leaders have overseen an eye-watering 128% increase in military spending over the past four years. In short, it is the Iranian government which has plunged its own country and its citizens into an economic crisis.
Impressively, many media outlets appear to have taken this on board and have resisted the temptation to place the blame for Iran’s economic woes at the feet of President Trump. After all, you only have to listen to what the Iranian people are saying in a clear and increasingly loud voice, to ascertain the truth. Because amid the hullabaloo over sanctions, something quite remarkable is happening on Iran’s streets. Iran’s regime is deeply repressive and public dissent is highly punishable. And yet, more and more, the Iranian people are taking to the streets to protest their government’s economic failure and its refusal to fulfil its basic responsibility towards them.
The Wall Street Journal’s Asa Fitch reported that thousands had bravely taken to Iran’s streets, not to voice disapproval at US sanctions, but “appealing for financial help and calling for leadership changes.” In the New York Times, Thomas Erdbrink said that protests were popping up “across Iran” and were “fuelled by daily dissatisfaction,” with protestors chanting “death to high prices.” The UK’s Daily Mail went one step further, reporting that protestors had directly targeted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, chanting “death to the dictator.” They took particular exception to the economic disparity between themselves and their corrupt leadership, crying out “the nation is forced to beg while the leader lives like God.”
Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera’s Zein Basravi noted the breadth of protest, saying “The protesters are angry at water shortages, power cuts and the worsening economy. Demonstrations have grown and spread from small towns to the bigger cities.” According to NPR, even Iranian women, hitherto viewed largely as a voiceless sector of society, are taking to the streets.
US sanctions are clearly a big story. Yet, Washington has imposed sanctions and restrictions on Iran before. However, the brazen nature of the widespread protests in Iran, against a leadership which willingly neglects its own people, is both rare and hugely significant. While the former is being given the more prominent airtime and column inches, it is perhaps the latter which tells us everything we need to know about Iran’s leadership.