Iranians have been growing increasingly anxious amid threats of military action by the Trump administration but say they are already struggling with daily life in a war economy regardless of whether there’s a war.
Many Iranians consider themselves to be on a war footing, thanks to an economy battered by a year of U.S. sanctions that have contributed to inflation and shortages of medicine and other vital goods — without any sense that relief is coming anytime soon.
“People’s lives are getting harder and harder every day,” said Mojgan, a 32-year-old pharmaceutical company employee. “We are only hopeful, but don’t know much about what might happen.”
Residents of Tehran, the capital, interviewed over the phone and through recorded voice notes, said that middle-class Iranians are taking menial jobs or second jobs to make ends meet, lining up for increasingly scarce goods and hoarding essentials in case of shortages or war. All the Iranians interviewed spoke on the condition that they be identified only by their first name, if by any name at all, so they could share their views in a country where expression is tightly controlled.
Mogjan said many around her are girding for a year of continued hardships by stockpiling basic necessities such as canned food, cooking oil and rice, and trying to buy dollars and euros as the Iranian rial continues its slide.
Amid the fresh escalation of tensions in the 40-year dispute between the United States and Iran, Mogjan said the uncertainty has been nearly as unsettling as her shrinking quality of life. But she sees the prospect of war as remote, given Iran’s status as a regional power and the impact such a conflict could have on the wider Middle East, including U.S. allies.
Indeed, none of the Iranians interviewed said they expected a full-scale armed conflict.
“People around me are not particularly concerned with a possibility of a military war, but are very pessimistic about the economic situation,” said Elham, 35. “Everyone around me has put their life plans on hold, and they are all just waiting. Life has got harder for all walks of life in Iran, but the more vulnerable ones are completely ruined.”
Some officials in the Trump administration suggest that economic pain will inspire Iranians to revolt against their leaders, but Iranians say that hope is naive. They say they are simply trying to adapt to life without some necessities and aiming to ride out this period of hardship.
Since the United States withdrew from the landmark nuclear deal with Iran a year ago and started imposing wide-reaching economic sanctions, Iran’s currency has lost 60 percent of its value and the price of staples such as red meat and onions has skyrocketed 120 percent. Imported medicines have disappeared from pharmacies, and the cost of travel has become out of reach for most.
Faced with the decimation of Iran’s crucial oil exports and its banking and steel industries, Iranian leaders have conceded that the nation is facing a crisis. In recent weeks, President Hassan Rouhani likened the economic impact of U.S. sanctions to that of the ruinous war with Iraq in the 1980s — a comparison that landed with frightening effect for many in Iran’s struggling middle class.
U.S. officials have taken steps in recent weeks in response to what they described as credible intelligence of Iran’s intention to target American interests in the region. Though no evidence of Iranian threats has been made public, the Pentagon announced recently that it was sending an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East. That followed an accelerated deployment of an aircraft carrier group and a bomber wing to the Persian Gulf.
Senior White House officials also blamed Iran for the sabotage of four oil tankers in the gulf belonging to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Norway. Iran has denied responsibility for the attacks, but analysts have said they seem to fit into Tehran’s strategy of trying to drive up oil prices in response to U.S. sanctions.
Iran’s leaders say they do not want war with the United States, but have said their military is fully capable of defending the nation against attack — a message, analysts say, that is directed as much at Washington as at Iranians.
The economic uncertainty has forced some Iranians who considered themselves comfortable or even well-to-do into situations they had never considered: driving a taxi during off hours to make ends meet or trying to find a few hours’ work in a shrinking construction market.
For one 33-year-old woman who runs her own catering company in Tehran, the dizzying inflation in the price of food means she is losing money on nearly every contract. She said that the cost of ingredients increases almost every day and that she cannot pass that on to clients who are already strapped for cash.
With her profits way down, her family must forgo certain comforts, while storing essential items such as rice, pasta, oil and canned food “because there is a concern over shortages or war,” she said.
She and others said Tehran is jittery. Whenever rumors spread that an essential item is disappearing, Iranians make a wild dash to the markets. A few weeks ago, it was sanitary napkins and diapers that had people lining up at stores. More recently, it was sugar, she said.
“I don’t know how much of it is because of the scarcity of raw materials because of the sanctions and how much of it are games being played by distributors,” she said.
She and others said they hear more relatives, friends and neighbors talk about leaving Iran for good. Some people who have been able to save enough money to travel have applied for asylum in Europe, Canada and countries in the gulf region.
“Personally, I feel trapped, because the more the economic pressure gets, the more we have to work, and I cannot find the time or energy to study and plan for immigration,” the caterer said.
The reimposition of U.S. sanctions has refocused attention on the miserable living standards of Iran’s poor and the lack of employment opportunities for the country’s youth. And even Iran’s middle class is losing its cherished sense of personal security because of layoffs and shortages.
Farah, a 53-year-old government employee, said she believes the increasingly desperate conditions have led to rampant pick-pocketing and petty theft.
Though she is more cautious in the streets than usual, Farah said she sees no need to panic and believes Iran will get through the current crisis without war or upheaval.
From a young age, she has witnessed the hostility and confrontation that has characterized U.S.-Iranian relations since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
“The Iranian political leaders usually prepare the public mind for the worst before any crisis,” she said. “They actually have kept people’s minds in a perpetual state of crisis since after the revolution.”