‘The Beautiful Dreams That Are Burnt’: Portraits From Iran Under Sanctions

Iranians across a broad spectrum of society are having a tough time right now, and many blame U.S. sanctions.

Hospitals struggle to get medical supplies. Imported goods are hard to come by. Tourism has dried up. And forget about traveling abroad. These are just some of the many concerns Iranian photojournalist Marjan Yazdi hears from her subjects in this portrait series.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal lifted sanctions in exchange for limits on the country’s nuclear program. But former President Donald Trump put sanctions back after pulling out of the deal in 2018. Iran’s economy contracted, its currency tumbled and oil exports plummeted.

Now, President Biden wants to rejoin the deal, which was negotiated while he was vice president. The U.S. and Iran have agreed to start indirect diplomacy to return to compliance, which could include the U.S. lifting sanctions and Iran curbing its uranium enrichment.

The U.S. penalties on banking, oil and other trade target more than 1,500 individuals and entities in Iran. While U.S. officials said humanitarian and medical items would be exempt, human rights and trade groups argue that those and other sectors end up affected, too. The Trump administration was also reported to reduce licenses for medical exports to Iran.

The Trump administration said it wanted to use “maximum pressure” on Iran’s leaders to reach a better deal than the one struck by former President Barack Obama and several world powers. Some supporters of the sanctions also say Iran should be punished for backing militant groups, violating human rights and detaining foreigners.

Some Iranians have criticized their own leaders, too. Large street protests have broken out around the country in recent years over the government’s handling of the economy.

With the combination of U.S. “maximum pressure,” Iranian economic problems, plus the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many in the country are struggling to make it. What follows are portraits of Iranians from different walks of life, and how they are coping. The photographs of residents from different parts of Iran were made last year in Yazd, a province more than 300 miles southeast of the capital of Tehran.

“Vital medicines are becoming so rare and expensive.”

Kazem Mojibian, a manager in a private hospital in Yazd, says he is dealing with challenges that didn’t exist before the sanctions. Even though the U.S. says its restrictions do not target the health sector, according to Mojibian, shortages in medicines and surgical equipment are just some examples of how the sanctions end up affecting Iran’s medical centers. In the past year, hospital administrators have also had difficulties acquiring intensive care equipment, including for treatment of COVID-19 patients. Mojibian says he also has to find ways to shield the hospital’s nearly 600 employees from the fallout from sanctions.

“I feel very sad. Because of my nationality, all my registrations get canceled. I would grow way more if there weren’t any sanctions. Even though I still believe in my success, it just makes the work way harder.”

Elham Farahmand is a fitness trainer who is passionate about her job. Born and raised in a small village in Fars province, she travels for work to Tehran, Yazd and Shiraz. But what she is really saving up for is to travel abroad. She wants to participate in international competitions, like the Spartan Race held in Oman, and to speak at international conferences. Since the sanctions hit, realizing her dreams has become more challenging. With Iran’s weakened currency, the rial, and its financial and political crises, traveling abroad is well beyond her budget. She would like to offer training courses to people outside Iran, but restrictions on financial transactions make it impossible to charge international clients. She has almost lost hope, she says, but she doesn’t give up.

“The gift of sanctions for me is the beautiful dreams that are burnt and the hope for tomorrow.”

Alireza Saberi lives in Shiraz, and travels to Yazd and Isfahan for work. He studied electrical engineering but made a career in carpentry. (He also writes poems, one of which is quoted from above.) But his clients’ budget for wood work has dropped as the price of wood has tripled amid the sanctions and currency devaluations. He blames the sanctions and Iran’s wood industry monopoly on imports for damaging carpentry on a large scale. His main clientele are middle-class Iranians, a segment of society that’s fading amid the economic crisis.

“I have the feeling of a person trapped in a closed space. Everything has become routine and I have lost my motivation.”

Alireza Beigi owns a manufacturer of high-voltage cables and wires, exporting much of what it makes to neighboring countries. The company has factories in different parts of Yazd province. Before the sanctions, the company mainly imported raw materials from Europe, he says, but now it uses lower quality materials from China and India. The restrictions on money transactions are also a hurdle: Beigi says the company tries to work through a third country, like Dubai, to get around them, which adds to the cost of doing business.

“I have worked hard to reach my goals and I won’t let anything stop it. However, it has become so frustrating to sort out things financially when it comes to foreign currency.”

Sharareh Farid is doing her master’s in English literature at Yazd University and is planning to go to Canada to continue studying toward a Ph.D. For several years, she has been working hard and saving money for it. But price inflation and the devaluation of the rial have cut into her savings. And all her plans were put on pause during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Fear of running out of medicine is taking control of my life.”

Naeimeh Moosavi, from the capital of Tehran, has been under treatment for two years since receiving a kidney transplant. She has confronted new challenges and struggles regarding her treatment, which she says started when the U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran. On top of her stress and anxiety around her body’s possibly rejecting the new organ, now she is afraid of running out of medicine. Transplant medications are vital — and rare. Because of Iran’s shortage of drugs, government-funded hospitals and clinics distribute medicines at the start of each month to cover four weeks of treatment. She doesn’t know whether she will have next month’s medication.

“Even though our sales have drastically dropped, still we can get through this stage of economic hardship. What bothers me most is there are people who can hardly take care of their everyday expenses.”

Enayat Fazeli runs a family business selling carpets in Yazd with his father and brother. His main customers were tourists or exporters. Since the sanctions, the number of tourists has dropped dramatically, exporting goods has become a challenge and money transfers require bypassing sanctions, which costs a lot.

“For me the future looks dark and unknown, every kind of planning for the future seems impossible.”

Mehdi Ashraf is an optometrist who owns an eyewear shop in Yazd. Even though he says that sanctions haven’t affected his clientele, since most of his customers are wealthy, the penalties have made business more difficult — all parts of glasses and sunglasses are imported. So Ashraf faces price increases on top of the obstacles to bringing in new products.

“You go to your appointment to get your treatment and they tell you they are out of some specific medicines, while your life or death still depends on those medicines. This is a tragic story no one wants to be the narrator of.”

Sepideh Hadifar, from Tehran, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis eight years ago. With all her strength, she battled the disease. She continued her job, got promoted, gave birth to two kids. Nowadays, she says she has to struggle to keep her hopes up for herself and her family. Some of her medicines are no longer imported to Iran, some are replaced by drugs that she says are more potent and hard to get used to. Others are too weak. She believes people with chronic disease are the ones who are affected the most.

“There is no light in the near future.”

Mehrdad Tamehri got his master’s degree in painting almost 10 years ago. After Iran’s nuclear deal, there was a flood of tourists coming to Iran. So he rented a studio in a touristic part of the historic city of Yazd, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to sell his artwork. There was much demand, he says, until the sanctions. Tourism has dropped dramatically. He is having a hard time keeping his job. He is pushing himself to go to his studio and work, but is thinking of putting painting aside completely and starting a new job to make money.

“Now I can see more sunsets, what I enjoy the most.”

Balal Khaani has been a tour guide for more than 10 years. He has a cafe on a hotel rooftop in Yazd. Before the sanctions, the cafe was fully booked for high season six months ahead. Now fewer and fewer tourists come to Iran. He still goes to the cafe every day and spends his time watching the sunset.

“I started my own pharmacy with much hope and motivation. However, right now I have to deal with depressing moments more than ever.”

Morteza Vakil is a pharmacist who started his pharmacy four years ago, before the U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran. His business took a year to get recognized and then it started to grow very rapidly, until the sanctions started to hit the Iranian market. His business has suffered because of the shortage of medicines and increasing prices for medicines and cosmetics.

“I work more, I sell more, and there is more demand for my product compared to before the sanctions. But what we’re missing is hope and a clear future.”

Hossein Jalalian is one of the first people in Iran to start a coffee roasting factory, and his products are in high demand, he says. However, Jalalian says to get raw coffee beans to Iran they must go through another country such as the United Arab Emirates, which adds on to the price.

“When situations get hard, we have to deal with not only our challenges but others’ too.”

The price of red meat has gone way up, while people’s budgets have not. Some customers buy just one-third of the meat they used to take home, according to Hossein Hoseini, an apprentice at a butcher’s shop in Yazd. The shop is trying to contribute to making life easier for people. It gives away meat to those in need, some of them paying for it when they are able.

“I can never think of having another child as long as I see myself unable to provide them with the best.”

Navid Pourhosseini, a taxi driver, lives in Rafsanjan, a city in Kerman province, and takes travelers to places all over Iran. Demand for taxis is down. On one hand, the price of fuel has increased, which has pushed up taxi fares, and on the other hand, there are far fewer tourists in the country. Pourhosseini says, before the sanctions, he was doing fine and making good money, which he could save for leisure activities with his wife and daughter. He has had to cut many of those expenses. And for now, he says, having a second child is out of the question due to the uncertain future.

Marjan Yazdi photographed and interviewed the subjects in Yazd, Iran. Alex Leff wrote the introduction in Washington, D.C.

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