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Sep 21, 2012

Vox pops on Tehran's streets: 'the government is aggressive'

Do Iranians believe their President when he says it's western countries -- not him -- which are to blame for people's suffering? Jack Davies took to the streets of Tehran to ask them.

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The west is waging an “all-out, hidden, heavy war” on the Iranian people via economic sanctions, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared recently. But do the Iranian people buy his line that it’s western countries — and not his government — which are to blame for people’s suffering? This reporter took to the streets to find out.

The issue has been in the spotlight because of the recent summit for the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran. The summit was broadly hailed as a success by the clumsy Iranian propaganda apparatus: proof that Iran has friends, and that it won’t be intimidated by the US or Israel.

There’s no doubt life is tough for Iranians. Food prices have soared and some long-distance bus routes went up 20% in price in one month, while the Iranian rial devalued from roughly IRR20,000 to IRR27,000 for $US1. (The “official” rate remained steady at approximately IRR12,700. But as with many things in Iran, there is broad daylight between what is “official” and what is actually happening.)

When asked, the people of Iran, for the most part, blame their own government for the sanctions, although there is also a definite sense that the West has taken aim at the innocent Iranian population because of the policies of their leaders. All the following names have been changed due to the intelligence forces that operate completely beyond the law in Iran, and that aren’t as clumsy as the propagandists.

Vahid Ali, a structural engineer, says that the sanctions, aimed at curbing Iran’s perceived desire to develop nuclear weapons, are ultimately Iran’s own fault. “It is this government. It is the way our leaders act in the world. The government is aggressive, it says aggressive things and takes very aggressive stances,” he said.

When I put to Ali that there was, as yet, no proof that Iran was building a bomb or intent on creating the capacity to do so, he brushed me off: “Of course they want a bomb, maybe they already can make one. But the bomb is not the issue. It’s the big focus and it’s obvious why. But really, it is everything else the government says and does. Pakistan has a bomb.”

This seemed to get him started on other grievances he has with his government. “We don’t know the figures, because they are not reliable, but our government gives a lot of money to foreign groups like Hizbullah when there are so many things that need to be done here,” he said. “That’s our taxes, our money.”

This kind of anti-government feeling is common in Iran, and it is not confined to sanctions. Many women wear their compulsory head scarves as far back on their heads as possible, a small token of defiance. And although alcohol is illegal, a black market thrives with wine and spirits fermented in warehouses and bedrooms, in some cases in emptied plastic Pepsi bottles, as well as what can be smuggled from Turkey and Iraq. This is to say nothing of the enormous drug trade that operates through the turbulent border with Afghanistan.

Tellingly, I witnessed the crowds at the government-authorised al-Quds demonstration, protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Or, in the words of posters plastered around Tehran for the event, it called for the destruction of “the Fascist Zionist Project”. Every year this protest is held on the last Friday of Ramadan.

“All our planes have old Russian parts in them now. Do you think the government is flying in unsafe planes? Of course they’re not.”

But again, not all is as it seems. Mary ali-Khani, an American woman who married an Iranian and moved to Tehran 16 years ago, told me that many protesters were government workers coerced into attending. Some government schools are also obliged to organise their students to attend on their one full day-off.

“Anyway”, she said, “there’s more people at most football games in Tehran. It really isn’t indicative of what people think. If you put a camera in amongst them, of course it looks big and angry and violent. But most people in Tehran have headed north for the holiday.”

Very likely, a central US goal of the sanctions is to foster anti-government sentiment in Iran and increase pressure on the people to reignite something like the Green Movement that followed the disputed election of Ahmadinejad in 2009. Though it seems that the majority of Iranians would prefer a different political system, the costs and risks of opposing the government are immense.

I met students who had dozens of friends who participated in the Green Movement and spent six months or more in jail as untried political prisoners. Some are still detained. To make matters worse, the internet is filtered and monitored closely — websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Google Search are inaccessible without proxy access via the US or Canada. And well-funded intelligence services operate throughout the country to monitor opposition activity.

However, if this is indeed the goal of the sanctions, it has backfired to some extent. There is also a common sentiment in Iran that the US and the West are attacking innocent people and not those in charge, not those who are to blame.

“It is really unfair,” Mohsen, a student, told me. “My father owns a carpet shop, and the price of chicken has gone up three times as much. It’s really hard.”

Behzad, a former tour guide (who had to seek other work because of the decline in international tourism), said there are other consequences of the sanctions that people don’t consider: domestic planes in Iran are becoming increasing unsafe because airlines are unable to procure necessary replacement parts and maintenance equipment from overseas.

“All our planes have old Russian parts in them now. Do you think the government is flying in unsafe planes? Of course they’re not,” Behzad said.

Many in the international media have commented that the sanctions in Iran might actually have a galvanising effect on the population — that it gives the Iranian government an external target to blame for already poor economic conditions, and rampant corruption and mismanagement.

I was told by a carpenter in Esfahan that while he “hated these bastards” (referring to the government), he does like that Iran is one of the few countries that stands up to the US.

Nonetheless, public sentiment towards the US and even Israel (though perhaps to a lesser extent) is surprisingly positive. Public appearances from belligerent Iranian politicians and the inability of international media to access Iran gives a very distorted image of a country with thousands of years of Persian history and culture. It is a remarkably safe, friendly and hospitable country. But the pressure is certainly building, manifesting when Canada closed its embassy and cut its diplomatic ties with Iran.

I met many people who were making plans to leave Iran permanently for countries such as the US, Canada and Australia; this is not a viable option for most people.

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