After the June 14, 2013 Presidential elections, Iran has become an even hotter topic of discussion both within Washington and abroad.
Two weeks ago, I had the unique opportunity to go to Iran and discuss people’s thoughts on the election, President-elect Hassan Rouhani, sanctions, and the current social and political climate of the country.
Despite varying degrees of skepticism and mistrust, many Iranians agree that Iran’s election went better than expected. Until Election Day, many Iranians did not know if they would vote. *Sadaf, a 24-year old psychology student at the Islamic Azad University of Karaj, discussed why she and her family chose not to vote in the election. “We voted once  and we saw how that ended up,” she stated. In a “race between bad and worse,” she felt it would not be right to vote because “it would be a betrayal to those whose blood was spilled in 2009.”
Others shared her skepticism. Yet, after the fact, many of them were now hopeful that Rouhani could deliver on what he promised in his campaign, particularly easing the social and political atmosphere.
Firoomarz, a 23-year old engineering student at Islamic Azad University,Tehran, said that he and his friends voted because “doing nothing was not the right choice.” He said he wanted Rouhani to follow former President Khatami’s footsteps and let Iran reach its potential, “specifically in the sectors of the economy, industry, and agriculture.”
In some ways, Rouhani’s campaign promises have slowly started to manifest inside the country. Leading up to the elections, Tehran saw an increase in crackdowns by the morality police. However, after the election, Iranians have seen that “restrictions have been eased and the atmosphere has become more relaxed,” said Sadaf. “For example,” she continued, “the volleyball game [between Iran and Italy] was on television the other night and state TV showed a mixed-gendered audience, not adhering to Islamic dress, and women wearing heavy makeup and Iranian flags painted on their faces.”
Across the board, every person I talked to said that their top priority was improving Iran’s economic health. The wealth disparity in Tehran was alarming. In less than a week, I saw at least four Porsche Cayenne’s, eight Mercedes-Benz C-Classes and countless other imported vehicles. The Porsche, with a price tag of approximately 800 million toman (**$238,000.000), allows many elite to ride in luxury, while on the other hand I also witnessed a family of eight living in a one room, ground floor apartment.
An iPhone 5, cost 2.3 million toman (** $728.00) — the price of a semester’s tuition at a private university.
In addition, customers pay for their high-end purchases up front and in cash, as credit cards are virtually nonexistent in Iran.
Firoomarz described how “fundamental needs have become expensive,” and because of this “little by little it has become hard to live.” “Before the sanctions, 300,000 [tomans] was more than enough per month that I could even put 100,000 away to save, and I could still pay for my phone, car, tuition, going out with friends, and all other expenses. Now 1,000,000 [tomans] isn’t even enough.”
“Water, gas, and electricity have become much more expensive. Just last week I was buying milk and yogurt and found them more expensive as well.” The effects of sanctions have permeated nearly all levels of society.
Ordinary Lives Disrupted by Sanctions
With regards to medicine and the transfer of money, Iranians inside Iran and abroad have either personally been affected by the detrimental effects of sanctions or have close friends and relatives who have been.
Mahboubeh and Alireza, 80 and 83-year old grandparents, described their frustration and anger as the medicines they took on a daily basis are no longer being sold in their pharmacies. Prices have increased on almost all of the prescriptions they use, so they have sought out alternative ways of getting these medicines, such as from friends and family members abroad. Although sanctions do not specifically prohibit medicine sales, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Iranian banks, and “most of the banking channels through which these goods have been sold are blocked.”
According to a Woodrow Wilson Center Report entitled Sanctions and Medical Supply Shortages in Iran, the consequences of sanctions have been deeply detrimental to the population. For example, Iranians have been forced to take lower quality medicine imported from China and India, or take improper substitutes — both of which have caused additional medical complications for patients. Sanctions have also led to the shortage of hard currency needed to pay for pharmaceutical transactions.
Ill and elderly Iranians are clearly being hurt the most by the decrease or complete reduction of vital medicines.
Homa, 56, expressed her frustration over how difficult it was to send money to her eldest son currently living in the U.S. Parents and spouses have increasingly few ways to send their loved ones money for tuition, rent, and other general costs. Sanctions have blocked or severely curtailed financial channels that Iranians have used for decades.
Her husband Farbod, a pilot who worked for government-owned aviation company Iran Air for over 20 years, said that he and many of his coworkers have left their jobs there to begin working at a private company called Mahan Air. He claimed that “because of the sanctions, Iran Air stopped flying to many of its international destinations.”
Despite what some policy makers in Washington have been claiming, and despite the pressure of sanctions on the population, not one person that I spoke to cited sanctions as being the reason for voting for Rouhani. Rather, they disdained many of the other candidates; Rouhani simply emerged as the least bad option for many. No one mentioned that they think Rouhani can necessarily lift sanctions, but many did say that they expect him to open up the political atmosphere at home.
Nearly everyone I spoke to hoped relations between the U.S. and Iran would improve, and believe that the only way forward is the path of diplomacy.
Iranians are going to have a tough journey ahead but Rouhani’s election has provided a potential window of opportunity; Washington should not neglect to seize this moment.
As Firoomarz said to me, “There is hope again.”
*Names have been changed
**Market Value of the day was $1=3350 toman
(This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post)