The death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who passed away in the hospital on September 16, three days after being arrested by the Iranian Guidance Patrol, has sparked massive ongoing protests in Iran. Outraged by the Iranian state’s brutal treatment of women for not observing “proper hijab,” Iranian women in different cities and rural areas have been at the forefront of the street protests, removing their hijabs, and some cutting off their hair publicly as a sign of mourning while resisting police crackdown. A month later, it has been estimated that at least 233 people, 23 of whom were children, have died in the protests.
The Iranian protests erupted over long-time grievances resulting from the unrealized promises of the post-revolutionary Iranian state, whose anti-imperialist Islamic nationalism aspired to shed economic injustices, inequalities and the political oppression of the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi regime. However, more than four decades later, those promises are yet to be fulfilled. The ever-increasing economic and wealth gap between most of the population and the economic elites; the unequal distribution of resources (and the impoverishment of the provinces where ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Arabs and Baluch people live); and the suppression of dissent have been building for decades. The domestic economic policies in Iran are compounded by sanctions against the country, which hurt the most vulnerable segments of the Iranian population.
A History of Sanctions
While the U.S. has consistently imposed sanctions on Iran since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Obama administration imposed the harshest sanctions in the history of U.S. economic warfare on Iran. On July 1, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA) to amend the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 (ISA). CISADA added new types of restrictions that devastated the Iranian economy. The new sanctions imposed excruciating economic pressure on the Iranian population — especially the working class — and jeopardized many lives by making life-saving medicine unaffordable. The imposition of CISADA and economic pressure by the U.S. and Europe led Iran to sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal) in 2015 — a deal which lifted some of the sanctions (though not all of them). The Trump administration’s reversal of the JCPOA, followed by the imposition of a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions, continues under the Biden presidency. Although the Iran-U.S. negotiations have resumed this year, Israel, the U.S. hawks, and some regime-change opposition forces among the Iranian diaspora have been serious obstacles to the sanctions relief and continue their opposition to the reinstatement of the JCPOA by appropriating the Iranian protests.
The short-lived relief that the JCPOA afforded the Iranian people notwithstanding, the longstanding sanctions — exacerbated by Trump’s renewed measures — have deeply affected the quality of life in Iran. The Iranian state’s hasty decision to implement “independent development” in an effort to bolster the economy has culminated in home-grown technologies that have had devastating environmental consequences. For example, after Obama imposed penalties for selling petrol to Iran, resulting in a 75 percent decrease in imports, Iran started to refine its own oil. This policy resulted in the production of petrol and diesel that contained 10-800 times more contaminants than the international standard. The subsequent air pollution has increased levels of cancer (especially breast cancer) in Iran, which — exacerbated by the lack of access to life-saving cancer treatments, also due to U.S. sanctions — has subjected the Iranian population to slow death.
The renewed U.S. sanctions under Trump’s administration further decreased Iranians’ purchasing power and increased inflation at unprecedented rates. Even as the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued guidance that humanitarian items (such as medicine) would not face U.S. sanctions, the sanctions on Iranian oil and Iran’s Central Bank significantly minimized the nation’s ability to afford medicine and medical supplies — a reality that resulted in a devastatingly high rate of deaths during the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, even if medicine is exempt from the sanctions on paper, because of the sanctions on the Central Bank, suppliers refrain from selling medical supplies and life-saving medicine to Iran, as financial transactions are subjected to sanctions or capped at a level that render exemptions meaningless. As Human Rights Watch reported in April 2020, “the definition of drugs under US export regulations — which includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines and medical devices — excludes certain vaccines, biological and chemical products, and medical devices — including medical supplies, instruments, equipment, equipped ambulances, institutional washing machines for sterilization, and vehicles carrying medical testing equipment. This means that some of the equipment crucial to fighting the virus, such as decontamination equipment, and full-mask respirators, require a special license.” Although some international aid was allowed due to the pandemic, even humanitarian organizations that have OFAC licenses to operate within Iran struggled with legal battles that withheld their license renewal, which meant a significant delay in the first weeks of the pandemic when relief efforts were crucial.
Increasing privatization, at odds with the ideals of the early years of the revolution, has combined with the sanctions to deepen economic inequalities and led to increasing discontent and resentment. Corruption, unemployment, the underemployment of the highly educated Iranian population and the austerity measures imposed by the state to remedy the economic crisis resulting from the sanctions, have given rise to massive protests in the past few years. For example, in June and July 2018, the drastic drop in the Iranian currency value as a result of sanctions and the lack of access to clean water in the southern province of Khuzestan resulted in protests in Tehran, Khorramshahr, Abadan and Ahwaz. More recently, in the past few months, teachers and government workers have been protesting low wages and the privatization of education. These protests have consistently been brutally suppressed by the Iranian state in the name of “national security.”
Sanctions, as many have argued, are war by another name. Over four decades of economic sanctions have made life extremely difficult for the majority of the Iranian population without making any difference in the Iranian state’s repressive policies. In fact, sanctions — along with covert U.S. operations under the guise of “democratization projects” and the pending threat of U.S. military intervention — have actually furthered the securitization of the Iranian state and have given it a convenient excuse to silence any kind of dissent. Any protest — whether it is a response to the rise in gas prices, economic corruption and sanctions profiteering (opportunistic financial transactions and trade by private entities and corrupt government elements to profit from the misfortune of the majority of the population), constriction of social freedoms, catastrophic environmental policies, oppression of ethnic minorities, or labor injustice — is accused of “foreign collusion” and is suppressed brutally.
Protests Continue Despite Repression
The opportunistic appropriation of the Iranian protests by some Iranian diasporic opposition groups, as well as U.S. war hawks and the Israeli state, continues to encourage the Iranian state’s crackdown on social media and jeopardize the safety of Iranian people who bravely risk their lives in street protests. The hijacking and appropriation of Iranian protests by regime change enthusiasts are not new. In response to these threats, the Iranian state uses a strategy that is far too familiar for the Iranian people: arrest, torture and force confessions from the dissidents, whom the state accuses of “foreign collusion” and propaganda, and cut off internet access for Iranian citizens during the protests.
Domestically, post-revolutionary Iran’s anti-imperialist ideals have lost their appeal to some segments of the Iranian population who blame the economic atrocities and rampant inflation on Iran’s geopolitical role in the region, especially its support of political groups in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. This resentment is based on the idea that the state is supporting political groups in the region while ignoring Iranians, and the claim that this support has made Iran isolated from the “West.” As such, the dire economic conditions have pitted Iranian people’s struggle against the struggles of Iran’s Arab and Afghan neighbors.
“Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” which is adopted from the Kurdish slogan “Jin Jian Azadi” (“Woman, Life, Freedom”), has become a rallying cry of the recent protests — encapsulating politics and life by insisting on “freedom” beyond nationalism. Zan, Zendegi, Azadi doesn’t pit the struggles of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, the U.S., Syria, Lebanon, and other parts of the world against each other, nor does it dismiss those struggles because the Iranian state appropriates them for its own geopolitical agendas. It rejects Islamophobia and orientalist representations of Muslim women and refuses to reduce the movement against compulsory hijab to a binary of religion and secularism. Zan, Zendegi, Azadi does not translate into liberal democracy’s promise of freedom — a freedom that has historically been entangled with private property, racialized and gendered notions of humans, and built upon death, debilitation, enslavement and dispossession. Zan, Zendegi, Azadi, or “Woman, Life, Freedom,” crystallizes a politics where “woman” is not an overdetermined biological identity, a symbol of national honor, or a body without subjectivity on which battles over liberation take place. “Woman, Life, Freedom” calls for a future where sanctions do not deplete life and where repression is not justified in the name of national security. Sanctions hurt women who bear the burden of economic devastation, increased violence and state repression. The call for “Woman, Life, Freedom” is not achievable unless there is an end to the deadly sanctions and sanctions profiteering.
The massive protests in Iran signal that many Iranians — even some who are aligned with or support the state — are fed up with the corruption and repression which are ironically enforced under the guise of “morality.” After 43 years, the Iranian women who refuse the instrumentalization of their bodies as sites of morality/freedom are in the forefront of the movement.
The shift to “Woman, Life, Freedom” in the recent protests thus represents a powerful questioning of sectarian orientation by moving toward solidarity and a different vision of world-making. “Woman, Life, Freedom” envisions a world that is not bound by nationalism, empty promises of rights or neoliberal competition, but one that strives for a life free of repression, injustice, scarcity and violence.
If sanctions kill softly in the name of rights and international security, if the Iranian state kills brutally in the name of morality and under the cloak of anti-imperialism, and if U.S. bombs kill shamelessly in the name of liberal democracy, then “Woman, Life, Freedom” strives for a life where death does not speak the last word.