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In Iran, the sting of sanctions begins to take hold

Iranians believe economic sanctions will hurt only them, not the country's leadership.

Iran sanctions
An Iranian woman shops at a bazaar in Isfahan, Iran's second-largest city, on July 7, 2009. (Ehsan Khosravi/AFP/Getty Images)

TEHRAN, Iran — On the first day of a recent Iranian workweek, a day after U.S. President Barack Obama gave a rare televised address to the Persian-speaking world, Tehran residents were seething.

They didn’t like the president’s message that the severe economic sanctions the United States and other countries have imposed on Iran are its leadership’s own doing. The sanctions are overly aggressive and unjust, they said — a perhaps reasonable view given how difficult life is becoming for them.

“Obama … said that these sanctions are meant to affect the Islamic republic government, but without affecting people it can’t affect the government,” said Maryam, a 26-year-old graduate student who works part time for a company that imports construction material.

“It affects every aspect of our lives: transportation, the ingredients in the food we eat, even my university dues are all up considerably since this time last year, and no one in our family is earning any more money than we were then. We’re just happy to still have work.”

Although Obama said harming individuals is not the aim of the sanctions, it has so far been the only discernible result.

Iranians are beginning to feel the sting.

The most often cited example of the rising costs is the price of meat, which is now being sold for an exorbitant $20 a kilogram in Tehran, an impossible purchase when the average monthly salary here is less than $500.

Iran, once ranked seventh in the world in consumption of cosmetic and beauty products, most of them imports, is now facing a shortage of many of those as well. And taxi prices, almost entirely unregulated, have increased by some 20 percent over the past month.

Perhaps most startling of all, however, was the decrease in value of the Iranian rial against the dollar on Wednesday, with the rial dropping about 20 percent, to the weakest it has ever been.

But what’s even worse, many Iranians say, is the feeling of isolation the sanctions have created.

“Our connections with the outside world are diminishing every day,” said one Tehran-based photojournalist. “It feels like we’re being made into another North Korea, and it’s not just our leaders doing this, it’s the rest of the world, too.”

While it is becoming clear that the sanctions are hurting the economy, it is less clear if the Iranian government is feeling the pressure alongside the Iranian people.

Contradictory messages from Iran’s leaders coupled with few reliable sources on the ground have forced Western powers into a familiar yet uncomfortable dilemma; they have to guess what is actually going on here.

During their controversial trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly last week, both President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki spoke, incredibly, about the strength of Iran’s economy.

“Despite the global financial crisis, Iran's economy not only averted a recession, but continues to maintain a good position by achieving an eye-catching growth in its stock exchange market and reducing the national unemployment rate,” Mottaki said.

Some Iranian lawmakers have taken an even bolder stance, claiming that the sanctions have actually had a positive influence on the country’s economy.

“It has been nearly 30 years that Iran has been under unilateral economic sanctions imposed by world powers and particularly Western countries,” Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, a member of parliament, said over the weekend, invoking a mixture of revolutionary and nationalist rhetoric. “[But] relying on their capabilities [Iranians] can turn sanctions into opportunities and easily overcome the biased policies of the enemies.”

He did not elaborate.

Some Iranian political figures, meanwhile, have taken a conflicting tone.

Former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani earlier this month told the Assembly of Experts, one of the country’s most influential clerical bodies, to take the sanctions seriously, but did not point any fingers.

“We have never been faced with so many sanctions,” he said. “I would like to ask you and all the country’s officials to take the sanctions seriously and not as a joke.”