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Distress and Defiance in Tehran

The devastating impact of American sanctions has left many Iranians feeling they are already at war.

TEHRAN — To get around Tehran, nothing beats a motorcycle. It is cheap and fast, and you can break the laws of the gridlocked traffic at will. The motorcycle is the pulse of this city of 15 million. It is a nuisance and necessary. I try to cultivate a special relationship with motorcycle mechanics; without them, Tehran does not move. And when they talk, I listen.

Farzad, my motorcycle mechanic who works from a hole-in-the-wall garage in my neighborhood, complained that the price of engine oil had tripled in late May. “The customers think I’m ripping them off,” he said. “I tell them to go the bazaar and buy the oil themselves if they want, and I’ll change it for them.”

On a visit to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan I had bought him a pair of used hiking shoes for about $10. His eyes shone when I gave him the shoes. The pair, if bought in Iran, would have cost around $100 — the equivalent of a month’s wages for a laborer.

On Thursday morning, Iran shot down an American surveillance drone. The Americans claimed the drone was in international airspace; the Iranians released competing coordinates, placing it within Iranian territory. On Thursday night, President Trump approved retaliatory strikes on Iran, before pulling back at the last minute. International experts fear that the possibility of war is increasingly real. On the ground in Tehran, this is news to no one.

I live on 30 Tir Street in southern Tehran, the beating heart of the city. The labyrinthine Tehran bazaar is a short walk away. There are government ministries, libraries, churches, a functioning synagogue and a Zoroastrian high school nearby.

This is the Tehran that would draw visitors, but there are few. The devastating impact of American sanctions is everywhere: The stores are often empty; the restaurants, mostly deserted. On the adjacent Hafez Avenue, a deafening silence pervades the shopping complex specializing in selling mobile phones.

One of the few stores on 30 Tir Street that still attracts customers is run by Abbasi, a retired army officer who repairs household gadgets — people cannot afford to buy new stuff. “Well, isn’t this already war?” he asked, without much rancor. It’s a question many Iranians ask themselves these days.

Since the Trump administration reimposed sanctions last year, Iran’s oil exports have fallen by more than half, the Iranian rial has lost more than 60 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year and inflation has reached 37 percent. The Iranian economy contracted by 4 percent in 2018 and is expected to contract by 6 percent this year.

The sanctions are ultimately about individual lives: a relative’s immunosuppressive meds after a liver transplant suddenly skyrocketing in price and nearly disappearing from the market; a painter of some renown ceasing to practice her craft after 30 years because of the now prohibitive cost of art material; young professionals without jobs leaving Tehran in large numbers to try their luck in smaller, less expensive towns.

The price of paper has increased fivefold; the price of car parts, four times. Most fruits have become luxury items, many families can’t afford meat and factories in the provinces are shutting down.

When a country like Iran — with the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves and an educated work force — suddenly turns poor, a feeling not unlike embarrassment hangs in the air. Sometimes the reactions can turn comical: “Exclusive sale!” a street vendor shouts near Vanak Square in northern Tehran, “Ladies, I have decided to drop the prices of my tops because of Trump’s bad faith. Mr. Trump and I aim not to please you, but to empty your pockets!”

Life in Iran would seem intolerable without the occasional comic relief. The acute awareness of what might have been fills the air like an ache. I remember that momentous summer night in 2015 when President Hassan Rouhani of Iran announced the nuclear deal with President Obama. I joined the tens of thousands celebrating in Tehran.

We imagined that a new chapter had opened in Iran’s relationship with the world. After the easing of sanctions, the Iranian economy seemed to make significant strides. According to the Central Bank of Iran, the economy grew 12.5 percent between March 2016 and March 2017. European manufacturers like Peugeot were preparing for major investments.

Four years later, the hopes and aspirations of an entire nation wishing to come in from the cold have been destroyed. Iran finds itself at the threshold of war with the United States after having signed a nuclear deal it did not pull out of.

Whether you are for or against the Islamic Republic, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most prominent military force of your country, is being labeled a terrorist organization while the channels of economic exchange between your country and others are barred and your major export — oil — is being choked, the ordinary Iranian may be forgiven for thinking that war is just a matter of time.

The last time there was a definitive test of wills between Iran and another country was Saddam Hussein’s invasion in the 1980s. Iran, which was completely dependent on Western technology and military ware before the revolution, intensified its efforts during and after the war to develop self-reliance.

Members of the generation running the Iranian government and military for the past 30 years came of age during the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war. They pushed expertise in asymmetrical warfare and a homegrown mastery of missile, cyber and drone technology because they saw no other way to have a fighting chance in their long struggle against the United States.

After President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal, the Iranian decision makers were convinced that their strategy — self-sufficient military prowess and strategic depth in the region — was right all along.

Sadi Shirazi, the great 13th century Persian writer, has a tale about a king at sea. A member of his retinue who has never seen so much water will not stop wailing and wants to return to land. The king’s adviser has a solution: Throw the man who cannot swim into the water and he will quickly learn the attraction of being on a safe ship.

The Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran smacks of throwing the country into the sea to bring it to its senses. Except that Iran learned to swim during its war with Iraq. Iran does not recognize the king and doesn’t see the ship as a safe haven. After all, the entity that threw it into the current once can and will do it again.

This article was originally in The New York Times.