These Photos Capture What Life's Been Like in Iran Under Trump’s Sanctions
Photo: Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

These Photos Capture What Life's Been Like in Iran Under Trump’s Sanctions

“Biden might not mean much for us, but at least now we know for sure that we are not going to war.”
January 20, 2021, 2:06pm

As Donald Trump’s term as president ends, people around the world are anticipating what the incoming administration of President Joe Biden means for them. Nowhere is that more true than in Iran, where 80 million people have been labouring under the reality of economic sanctions for years.

During his time in office, Trump unilaterally withdrew from a landmark international nuclear deal, introduced new waves of sanctions, helped forge new alliances with Iran’s bitter rivals, and ordered the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most senior military commanders, almost dragging the US into another war in the Middle East in the process.

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Hossein Kazemi and Reza Dehghan are two Iranian photographers who have been working on separate projects documenting ordinary Iranians' everyday lives under sanctions.

Two Tehran carpet sellers rest in the middle of a working day. Carpet sellers in this market said they had lost most foreign customers due to sanctions. Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

Two Tehran carpet sellers rest in the middle of a working day. Carpet sellers in this market said they had lost most foreign customers due to sanctions. Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

Their work provides an insight into how the Trump administration’s signature foreign policy of “maximum pressure” has pushed the Iranian economy to the brink of collapse.

Kids play in front of Tehran's Holy Defence Museum, which commemorates the Iran-Iraq war. Iran has invested heavily in the missile industry. Photo: Hossein Kazemi/ Middle East Images

Kids play in front of Tehran's Holy Defence Museum, which commemorates the Iran-Iraq war. Iran has invested heavily in the missile industry. Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

"Sanctions were there against Iran even before I was born," said Kazemi, 37, who is based in Kerman, Iran. Through his photo collection “Sanctions are Coming,” Kazemi captures the impact of American foreign policy on normal life.

Workers take a break at Kerman Motors automobile manufacturing company. When the new sanctions began, South Korea's KIA motors ended its relationship with Kerman. Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

Workers take a break at Kerman Motors automobile manufacturing company. When the new sanctions began, South Korea's KIA motors ended its relationship with Kerman. Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

“No matter what side of the argument you are on, in Iran sanctions are personal, and I wanted to shed light on issues like death from car accidents because we can't import decent cars,” he said.

 A group of people burying a young man who died in a car accident. More than 17,000 people die in traffic accidents each year in Iran, with low vehicle safety one of the reasons for the high number of deaths. Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

A group of people burying a young man who died in a car accident. More than 17,000 people die in traffic accidents each year in Iran, with low vehicle safety one of the reasons for the high number of deaths. Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

Deghan, a 31-year-old French-Iranian photographer and filmmaker based in Paris, collected portraits of 30 characters across the country in a collection titled “Sanctions Against Me.” He aimed to focus on "the layer of the society that doesn't get the media attention in the more traditional global news coverage when it comes to Iran stories, and far from politics I wanted to give them a platform and tell their stories."

"I have a nervous disease, my medication is rare and expensive, and because of the rarity, they only trust me to receive the pills," says Mahnaz. "Taking care of livestock has also become so expensive. I do not know how to manage all these expenses." Reza Dehghan / Middle East Images

"I have a nervous disease, my medication is rare and expensive, and because of the rarity, they only trust me to receive the pills," says Mahnaz. "Taking care of livestock has also become so expensive. I do not know how to manage all these expenses." Photo: Reza Dehghan / Middle East Images

The complications created by the international pressure on Iran have led to very limited access for international humanitarian organisations during natural disasters, leaving the country to mostly rely on its more limited local capabilities. While medical goods are officially exempted from the sanctions, the drastic devaluation of the currency has made imported goods much harder to purchase. 

“During the flood in Khuzestan, our only hope was help from the Red Cross to provide us with tents and food, but because of the sanctions, no country could send help to us. For so long we had to live in abandoned train wagons,” says Mirali, a student. Photo: Reza Dehghan / Middle East Images

“During the flood in Khuzestan, our only hope was help from the Red Cross to provide us with tents and food, but because of the sanctions, no country could send help to us. For so long we had to live in abandoned train wagons,” says Mirali, a student. Photo: Reza Dehghan / Middle East Images

Even pre-COVID, the unemployment rate was past 30 percent, and the pandemic has hit the economy hard – the Iranian rial has lost half its value in the past six months. Mired by mismanagement, corruption, and stubborn administration, the economy has recorded new lows and dived into deeper crisis.

"Sanctions have created a huge gap in society, which has made only 20 percent of people able live in total luxury. I have tried so hard to be among that 20 percent, yes, I am richer now, but I am under much more stress and the risk of doing business is much higher," says Amir, a businessman. Photo: Reza Dehghan/ Middle East Images

"Sanctions have created a huge gap in society, which has made only 20 percent of people able live in total luxury. I have tried so hard to be among that 20 percent, yes, I am richer now, but I am under much more stress and the risk of doing business is much higher," says Amir, a businessman. Photo: Reza Dehghan/ Middle East Images

The side effects of sanctions have haunted Iranian society. “There is a high level of depression and anxiety about the future among the youth, and we are proud people with a high potential and who strive for a dignified life,” said Dehghan.

“I am a retired employee of the Zarand coal factory. I have lived alone since my whole family passed away. Everything has gotten much more expensive but my monthly pension has not changed. I can't even pay for my everyday expenses let alone my treatment costs,” says Davood Saaberi. Photo: Reza Dehghan / Middle East Images

“I am a retired employee of the Zarand coal factory. I have lived alone since my whole family passed away. Everything has gotten much more expensive but my monthly pension has not changed. I can't even pay for my everyday expenses let alone my treatment costs,” says Davood Saaberi. Photo: Reza Dehghan / Middle East Images

“Families are only concerned over ensuring a bright future for their children, and the past two years of economic pressure have killed the hopes of anything promising,” added Kazemi.

Two athletes fighting in the ring of a kickboxing club in Kerman, Iran. Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

Two athletes fighting in the ring of a kickboxing club in Kerman, Iran. Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has urged the incoming Biden administration to return to the nuclear deal, and lift the Trump-era sanctions. “Today is the end of [Trump’s] government and political life,” he said in a televised cabinet meeting on the day of Biden’s inauguration. 

“If they [new US administration] return to law, our response will be positive, and if they prove sincerity in practice in the face of law and the resolution to which they have voted themselves, we will also carry out all of our commitments.” 

It will take a long time for the oil-dependent Iranian economy to recover from the fatigue of the past two years in particular. But a return to the nuclear deal will lift mounting  pressure, and make it possible for Iran to access post-pandemic international recovery funds.

A family share a picnic on the outskirts of town. Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

A family share a picnic on the outskirts of town. Photo: Hossein Kazemi / Middle East Images

“Biden might not mean much for us,” said Kazemi, “but at least now we know for sure that we are not going to war.”●