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Life on the Streets

Iran in the Shadow of War

by BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN

As the prospect of a deadly confrontation between Iran and the United States increases, the fate of 78 million Iranians remains absent in the calculus of war on both sides. Invisible in the current war discourse, Iranians are caught between a repressive government with a reckless and dangerous foreign policy, and an outside world largely uninterested in their voices and their lives. “We are trapped. We live under the heavy shadow of war,” a resident of Tehran told me.

The rhetoric of war is radicalizing the foreign policy environment in the United States, and empowering the hawks on both sides of the conflict. Promising military action to stop Iran has become a central campaign strategy by Republican presidential contenders. Toughness and readiness to wage war is becoming a prerequisite for victory in 2012, pushing the Obama Administration towards a riskier approach towards Iran.

On its part, the Iranian government is using the threat of war with the United States to repress its internal opposition and further reaffirm its grip over the society. The pro-government media is inundated with proclamations of victory of the Islamic Republic in the case of a war with the U.S. and its allies. Although the Iranian regime avoided actual confrontation with the United States in the past, the situation is substantially different now. Embattled by factional struggles, and weakened by an ailing economy, the dominant faction of the regime may welcome a limited war with the United States.

The road between a war of words and covert actions, and a real military confrontation may prove too short. The Strait of Hormuz has become an ammunition depot ready to explode by deliberate action, or a simple misjudgment.  Meanwhile, there is no echo of the voices of the Iranian people in the media and policy circles. Their opinions of war and peace remain absent in the discussion of the conflict.

Iranians have been living with the daily economic and political consequences of an undeclared war. The current standoff is reawakening the horrifying memories of the eight-year war with Iraq: the deafening sound of sirens in the dark of the night, missiles destroying homes and schools, young men returning from the front on wheel chairs, and unending funerals.

The United States and its allies are using elaborate economic sanctions to drain the resources of the Iranian regime, ignite domestic revolt, and force the government to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Sanctions are, however, chocking the Iranian people. While the government continues enriching uranium, sanctions penalize the Iranian people through dizzying increase in the price of food, gasoline and other basic items in ordinary people’s basket of consumer goods. Food inflation in Iran is currently at 50%, more than double the official inflation rate.

Fear of new sanctions and war also created an exodus from the local currency to the dollar and other major currencies. The nearly 60% depreciation of the Iranian rial, and the embargo on Iran’s oil exports will further increase food and other consumer goods prices. The dire economic conditions of Iranians with fixed income is a painful reminder of standing in long line for hours to buy milk, oil, and other basic necessities during the war with Iraq.

While grappling with the economic consequences of sanctions, Iranians are facing the psychological effects and the potential social instability and violence of an undeclared war. The assassination of nuclear scientists and sporadic explosions in Tehran and elsewhere in the country are bringing back memories Iranians have been trying hard to forget.

In the years after the war with Iraq, Iran remained free of bombings, explosions, and other forms of violence that devastated Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Iranians cherish this stability while they oppose the Islamic Republic and its suppression of people’s basic rights. The eight years of war with Iraq were the most repressive years of the Islamic Republic.

The Escalation of the conflict with the United States will give new ammunition to the government to further repress Iran’s fragile and weakened democracy movement. While opposing their government, they remain fiercely against war, covert, or declared. The history of the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the images of the mistreatment of the locals—even the dead—by the U.S. forces should dispel any illusion that Iranian might support war.

Two years ago, after the rigged presidential elections of June 2009, Iranians poured into the streets of the capital in a remarkable theater of courage and defiance. Men and women, and young and older Iranians peacefully called for true democracy in Iran, and respect for the civil and social rights. Iranian protesters, meanwhile, presented a different image of their country to the rest of the world. Contrary to the confrontational foreign policy of their government, they spoke to the world in the language of peace, showing the desire to live in harmony with those outside Iran.

The peaceful protests of the Iranian people were violently put down by the government. A sense of paralysis and despair prevailed. Silenced by the state, the protesters retired to their private lives. Their silence should not, however, be read as a sign of support for military confrontation instigated by Iran, or the United States and others.

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is a professor of political economy at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and the author of Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West and the forthcoming The Accidental Capitalist: A People’s Story of the New China (March 2012). He can be reached at behzad.yaghmaian@gmail.com.