For The Average Iranian, The Nuclear Deal Is Bittersweet


Living in Iran makes you a hardened cynic. It’s a defence mechanism. The constant cycle of euphoria and total disappointment is exhausting. You learn to treat any good news with utter suspicion.

On July 14, when I first read that a nuclear agreement between Iran and Western powers had been finally, maddeningly reached, I could predict the tone and content of the comments in the Iranian social media space with a high degree of accuracy: The joyous and exhilarated: “Thank God! They finally made a deal! People can finally breathe!” And the contemptuous, pitying: “You poor fools, this is all a game! What difference is it going to make for you and I?”

After all, we’ve seen it all before.

Twelve years ago, during the moderate administration of Mohammad Khatami, a man was appointed as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. He was tasked with mediating a compromise with the P5+1 world powers (consisting of the United States, China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany) to end a decades-long stalemate surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.

He nearly succeeded in brokering a deal that would bring 26 years’ worth of embargoes on Iran to an end.

However, with the victory of the hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that man resigned, the talks collapsed and Iran spiralled into the draconian control of fundamentalists.

Today that man, Hassan Rouhani, has made a comeback as the president of Iran, winning on a platform of ‘prudence and hope’. In brokering the deal with the P5+1, Rouhani and his ever-grinning foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have indeed made history.

They have achieved the impossible task of reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable: dancing skilfully around Iran's extremely complicated internal politics, and negotiating an agreement with Western powers while placating the regime's militant hardliners. Without being naive, I salute them as politicians of Olympian stature.

An Iranian family in Tehran, pictured shortly after news of the sanctions being lifted broke. The sign says 'Hello World', a popular sentiment among the Iranian people.

Despite the relentless sequence of ups, downs, broken promises and failed negotiations that have been the reality of Iranian life for as long as I, in my own personal experience, can remember, I hope that this deal truly means the start of a new era for Iran. Of the stigma of being Iranian finally being lifted (ah the experience of being singled out at customs in various airports, and being asked repetitive and humiliating questions: ‘Do you say the daily [Muslim] prayers?’ or, ‘Do you wear the headscarf in front of men?’ ‘Your flight was delayed for two hours, why was it delayed?’). That it will allow a devastated working and middle class to recover and rebuild after 36 years of living under crippling sanctions. ‘Sanctions’ which for us have become a fact of life, that we no longer think about in the daily struggle of grappling with their effects. A misery that is like the omnipresent cloud of smog that engulfs Tehran and is part of the oxygen we breathe, though we have long stopped noticing it.

This is what they meant: If you had cancer, and were poor, you either could not access the medication you needed to stay alive, or if you were a bit better off, you had to buy it from the black market in “Nasser Khosrow” street at exorbitant prices.

Internal air travel was a risk – no aircraft parts could be purchased to repair Iran’s aging, dilapidated fleet. Or if there was an earthquake, rescue operations would have to be suspended at night because emergency services had no night-vision equipment to search with. This was because Iran was barred from buying ‘dual-purpose’ equipment – anything that could be used for military objectives.

Or if you wanted to send money to your struggling child who was studying overseas, you wouldn’t be able to. Maybe you got lucky and found a friend, or a friend of a friend, who had an overseas bank account. You would then physically hand them your money, in thick wads of (usually) US dollars, and they would then transfer the equivalent from their own account to your son or daughter in Malaysia or Canada or Australia.

But then sometimes, that friend would suddenly have their account frozen too, because they were Iranian and there was some new addendum to the ‘sanctions’.

So yes, I am glad for my people. But I am bitter too.

For the desperate parents who will be able to buy coagulants for their haemophiliac teenage son, for those airline crew and passengers who can now (perhaps) go on a short domestic flight without the spectre of dying in a crash at the back of their minds for the entire trip, I am glad.

For those who lost their sisters, mothers or fathers, because they could not access chemotherapy injections, for the families who lost their cousins, friends or parents in a plane crash en-route to Armenia for a concert, whose body parts had to be collected from a crater 200 metres wide, I am bitter as hell.

* Writer’s note: Many of the real-life effects of sanctions described in this piece are drawn from the writer’s own experiences, and of those personally known to her.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.