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Iranians feeling ‘imprisoned’ in their country as Trump sanctions bite

Iranians cross an intersection near the Grand Bazaar in Tehran on Aug. 5. (Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg)

BAGHDAD — With the Trump administration reimposing sanctions aimed at cutting off Iran economically from the world, it’s the Iranian people who are feeling isolated.

Airfares to foreign destinations favored by Iranian travelers have tripled in cost, putting a getaway from their crushing economic and political woes out of reach for most.

The sharp rise in the cost of air travel, resulting from restrictions on doing business in dollars, is further adding to the deep disenchantment of many Iranians, who had enjoyed a brief period of optimism following the 2015 nuclear deal. For a time, tourism to regional and European capitals had spiked as Iran began to shed its pariah status.

Now, Iranians are increasingly marooned in a country where the currency is collapsing, food prices have soared, some imported medicines are out of stock and even newsprint has become so hard to come by that some newspapers are scaling back or folding. For many Iranians, it’s a familiar, unwelcome feeling: trapped with little hope for a respite abroad.

Economic stagnation, high inflation, and anger over government corruption have fueled low-level but consistent protests in many of Iran’s working-class precincts over the course of this year. As economic sanctions reimposed two weeks ago take hold, the discontent threatens to spread to Iran’s middle and upper classes, as pleasures such as travel fade out of reach.

For most Iranians, traveling to European or regional destinations like Dubai, Istanbul and cities in Iraq was already an arduous proposition. Iranian passports are among the world’s most restricted for obtaining foreign visas.

“That’s long been a source of enormous frustration and resentment for people that certainly predates Trump,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said.

But starting in 2012, many countries like Turkey, Georgia, Serbia, Russia and Azerbaijan began easing requirements for Iranians to visit. They joined Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia in offering Iranians visa-free or visa-on-arrival travel — contributing to a sense among Iranians that the isolation of the Islamic republic was no longer punishing ordinary people.

After the international agreement in 2015 over Iran’s nuclear program, foreign carriers like British Airways, Air France and KLM began flying to Tehran, bringing foreign tourists to the country and boosting the local economy.

The recent spike in the cost of airfare is again slamming shut that door to the world, and major carriers are now suspending service to Iran. On Thursday, British Airways and Air France announced they would end direct flights to Tehran next month, according to the Associated Press, following a similar decision by KLM last month.

This comes on top of President Trump’s travel ban, which barred Iranian citizens from entering the United States. Many are now unable to visit relatives in large Iranian communities in the United States, and others complain that the stigma of the American ban is also making it harder to gain entry to some European countries.

Now, Sadjadpour said, “the question is . . . ultimately who do people blame for this state? Do they blame America? Do they blame their own leaders? Do they blame economic sanctions?”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appears keenly aware of the mounting public frustrations, which often attribute Iran’s woes to domestic mismanagement and not international pressure. Khamenei echoed that sentiment earlier this month, taking the unusual step of blaming the government of President Hassan Rouhani for the economic crisis. Iranian state TV quoted Khamenei as saying that economic mismanagement, more than sanctions, has been the source of the hardships.

With the Iranian rial losing more than half its value seemingly overnight, Iranians are increasingly faulting the country’s leadership for failing to protect them from the fallout of the economic sanctions, which the Trump administration reimposed after withdrawing from the nuclear deal in May.

“We are in crisis because of the government and people don’t trust the government,” said a Tehran resident in his late 30s who requested anonymity for fear of publicly criticizing the regime.

Like others, he did not think the growing despair would lead to widespread demonstrations that could destabilize the government and clerical establishment. Instead, he said, the difficulties will only lead to Iran’s middle class feeling “imprisoned in the country.” Like others in the country, he had plans to visit Turkey in September but canceled them when ticket prices soared.

Official figures on Iranian travel are not expected for another few months, but according to industry experts, the impact of the hike in ticket prices has been immediate. Compared with the same period last year, bookings to foreign destinations from Iran have fallen by half, said Majid Nejad, founder of one of Iran’s largest travel agencies.

Most carriers charge for seats in U.S. dollars, and the sharp decline in the exchange value of the rial has made dollars unaffordable for most Iranians, Nejad said.

Domestic airlines and some foreign ones had charged in rials, but they are no longer able to convert their rials to dollars at a favorable government-subsidized exchange rate. Last week, Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization said airlines would have to use market rates for foreign exchange. That has been an additional blow to the airlines’ economics, contributing to steeper fares.

European airlines like Lufthansa have responded to the dramatic fluctuations in the value of the rial by eliminating the cheapest tickets in their economy cabin, said Nejad.

“There is disappointment inside the country,” said Nejad, adding that many travelers are frustrated with their government for mismanaging the economy and with the United States for pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran.

“People are more free to travel outside the country, but no one has the money to go. People are seeing their spending power decrease by half,” he said.

The forecast for relief isn’t promising, with a new round of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s most important export, oil, set to take effect in November.

Under President Trump, United States-Iranian relations have taken a decisive turn for the worse. Here's a brief history of the tumultuous relationship. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

Arghavan Dabashi, a travel agent in Turkey, the top destination for Iranian travelers, said bookings have steadily decreased as airfare increased, but most tourists are trying to offset the cost by reserving cheaper hotels and cutting back on VIP services and organized tours.

She said the falling value of the rial also presents complications for her business. Travel agencies must now quickly demand the ticket fee from travelers, usually within a 24-hour window, or else risk losing money to the volatile fluctuations in the rial’s value.

The rising cost of travel is also putting at risk a treasured rite for millions of Iranians. Next month’s Arbaeen religious observance usually sees droves of Iranian pilgrims travel to neighboring Iraq to worship at Shiite Islam’s holiest sites in the cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Aware of the financial challenges Iranians face, Iraq’s government said it would reduce visa costs for Iranian pilgrims during the holy month of Ashura. But industry insiders say up to 20 percent of those who had planned to visit will likely stay home.

Sabbagh reported from Istanbul.

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