If you’re an Iranian who wants to get the latest iPhone, iPad or Macbook, it may just be easier for you to purchase one in Iran than in the U.S.
New pressures to “tighten the noose” on Iran through sanctions have indeed led to discrimination against Persian-speakers at Apple Stores. One has to wonder how banning Iranians from having access to iPods on which they can listen to Rihanna’s latest hit (yes, Rihanna’s latest hit is available in Iran) will “change Iran’s behavior” concerning its uranium enrichment program.
But despite the sanctions and the draconian ways they’re being enforced, in Iran, iPhones are everywhere. And the way they get to Iran, far from “squeezing the regime” actually benefits smugglers linked to the state and the IRGC (Revolutionary Guard).
To purchase the latest Apple products, Iranians just have to go to their local “Apple Store” in Iran. They can choose their items online or in person, and can definitely speak Farsi when purchasing an iPad without worrying about whether the salesperson will take their money.
Indeed, everything is available in Iran for a price. Many Iranians still walk down Africa Street, known as Jordan Street before the revolution, in their Air Jordans, gel in their hair, while perusing DVDs of the latest Hollywood movies starring Will Smith, Matt Demon or Angelina Jolie on display by street vendors.
U.S. sanctions also prohibit U.S. fast food companies from opening in Iran. It is unclear what is the logic of banning McDonalds in Iran and how denying Iranians the pleasures of true American junk food will stop Iran’s nuclear program. And yet, while it’s always nice to enjoy a good khoreshte bamie or ghorme sabzi, Iranians can still skip rice and go to a good KFC (kabaaby Fried Chicken), Mash Donald’s (Mash refers to one who has made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mashhad) or simply grab a coffee at Raees—featuring a mustachioed version of Starbucks mermaid—on Seoul Street in Tehran.
Because of sanctions, most of these stores are knockoffs. However, all the soft drinks, clothes,
phones and other electronic devices are authentic. These goods come into Iran through Dubai, Iraq, and the shores of the Persian Gulf, and supply the Iranian Bazaari (merchants and shop keepers) who sell these items openly in their stores.
So if it is so easy for some Iranians to obtain all of these illicit American products, what is the problem? Sure, the sanctions are causing food prices to rise and are having a humanitarian impact among some Iranians, but there are still plenty of Iranians who seem to be doing fine, right?
Well, by making these items illegal, the sanctions empower the trafficking networks operated by official institutions— what Ahmadinejad calls “our smuggling brothers”, often directly linked to the IRGC. They squeeze out legitimate businesses and punish law abiders. It’s no wonder the sanctions are viewed as economic warfare on Iran’s middle class that help entrench the state.
Meanwhile, even as the IRGC benefits from the sanctions, other Iranian hardliners are not keen on the intrusion of Western goods and culture. They have worked to ban such items, and appreciate the United State’s help in isolating Iranians from Western influence.
But at the end of the day Iranians just prefer Coca Cola “original” over Zam Zam Cola (named for the well located within the Sacred Mosque in Mecca). So, on the one hand, the bazaari are banned from obtaining these items because of the U.S. government’s sanctions; and on the other hand they are banned from selling U.S. products by the Iranian government. Meanwhile, the IRGC benefits as the source for all of these illicit goods. And ultimately ordinary Iranians get squeezed in the middle.
Iranians more and more are struggling under mismanagement of the economy and from unilateral sanctions that have devalued the Iranian currency; the purchase of all of these items, not to mention basic food goods, is indeed becoming much more expensive—and prohibitive for the middle class. Consequently, it is hard for the Iranian people not to increasingly be—at the very least—disappointed by this strategy of sanctions that have nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear program.
Advocates of broad sanctions also don’t understand Iranian societal changes. The Iranian population is one of the youngest in the world with almost 65 percent of its population below the age of 33. Before the 1979 revolution the population was approximately 30 million. This number has more than doubled over the last 30 years to almost 79 million. The shift is very important because of the transition from a rural society to an urban one. The literacy rate is more than 80 percent. And this post-revolutionary generation wants access to technology, Levi’s Jeans, the Internet, Lady Gaga and good pairs of Converse All Star model 2004 (the most popular model in Iran—and not because they’re nearly 10 years old).
Western decision-makers who support a strategy of indiscriminate sanctions don’t understand Iran’ssocietal changes and how the sanctions are thwarting the progressive aspirations of Iran’s post-revolutionary generation. They don’t realize how Iranian hardliners are not threatened by the prospect of hungry mobs, but instead view the consumption habits and worldly inclinations of their increasing young population as the greatest internal threat to the Islamic Republic. Hardliners are more than happy to have help from the U.S. in banning these items, while at the same time skimming off the top when iPhones do inevitably reach Iran.
Funny how sanctions put these two governments that seem to hate each other on the same side when it comes to punishing ordinary Iranians.