A Guest Post for Omnified by Meghan Friedmann
On Tuesday, May 8, Ghasem Yazdani, an Iranian researcher in Data Science and Machine Learning at the Technical University of Berlin was in the library working on his master’s thesis when he took a break to watch President Donald Trump’s live announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. The news made Yazdani so upset that he had to stop working.
Iran’s isolated economy creates a variety of challenges for its ordinary citizens, even those living abroad. Iranians in Berlin, for example, face unusual obstacles in everything from bank account transfers to medical care access.
Yazdani is Iranian-born but has lived in Germany since 2014. As the 28-year-old sees it, the sanctions just make life harder for the Iranian people. He gives examples: they limit access to healthcare and employment, and they make it difficult for students living abroad to receive financial support, as their families are unable to make international bank transfers.
For many, the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2016 brought hope that Iran might eventually reintegrate into the global economy and that its citizens might see real opportunities. It was a deal that inspired some Iranians living abroad—including Yazdani and fellow Berliner Misagh Shakeri—to start initiatives aimed at improving conditions in their home country. Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the deal leaves the fates of those projects deeply uncertain.
Yazdani’s initiative, StartUpIran, aims to invigorate Iran’s startup scene. In order to do that, his company needs to send mentors to Iran, bring Iranians to Europe, and convince venture capitalists to invest. Trump’s regulations will make these activities very difficult, Yazdani said.
Misagh Shakeri faces a similar challenge. A Chief Technology Officer, the 34-year-old has lived abroad since 2006 and moved to Berlin in March. In 2015, when he found out that the EU would lift sanctions against Iran, he sold his shares in a Canadian business to start Payss, a company whose goal is to facilitate financial exchanges between Europe and Iran.
“I believe that in order to lower tensions between nations, you have to let people trade together,” Shakeri said. But Trump’s plan to reinstitute harsh economic sanctions will force companies to either stop conducting business in Iran or risk legal action from the United States.
Shakeri said that because most banks do their accounting in dollars—a process known as clearing—the U.S. can claim jurisdiction even in transactions involving non-U.S. companies. Unless Europe creates a financial institution completely independent of the existing system—a daunting task that could take years—Shakeri said his company has no way forward.
“For now, there is no hope.”
At this point, all Shakeri can do is hope there will not be a war.
Sam*, a 36-year-old business student who moved from Iran to Berlin three months ago, faces serious difficulties because of his country’s economic turmoil.
While living in Iran, Sam helped take care of his diabetic mother. Although American-made healthcare products have always been difficult to find, Sam said, he was able to purchase them on the black market. But now the cost of those products has skyrocketed, and he fears his mother will have settle for lower-quality Iranian ones.
Sam explains that the stark rise in rates is due to the nosedive that the value of the Iranian rial has taken in recent months. Although complex factors influence the rial, some have pointed to the uncertainty of the JCPOA under Trump as a likely culprit in its destabilization.
As a student, Sam was counting on financial support from his family—support which may now be impossible to get, as both his and his mother’s savings have rapidly lost value. To make matters worse, Sam said that both internal and external restrictions prevent Iranians from transferring funds to loved ones abroad. This limitation hurts both students who need financial support and Iranian expats who need money for medical care, he said.
Through the messaging app Telegram, Sam is part of a 2,300-person social group geared towards Iranians living in Berlin. He said that some members use the group to solve financial difficulties—for example, one Iranian in Berlin might give another a certain amount of euros, while their families back home exchange an equivalent amount of rial.
And yet, despite these challenges, Sam remembers feeling angry when the U.S. decided to lift sanctions under Obama. He felt that in doing so, they gave longer life to Iran’s corrupt regime.
If Trump’s decision somehow topples the regime in the long run, Sam explains, he supports it. Moreover, he said he did not see much impact on the lives of everyday Iranians after the implementation of the JCPOA.
Iran’s economic situation is so bad, Sam said, that every time he talks to a family member or a friend back home, they tell him not to return.
Even anti-sanction Berliners like Shakeri admit that the JCPOA did not bring large-scale change for everyday Iranians. But Shakeri attributes this to a residual hesitation among companies to invest in Iran.
Jo-Anne Hart, an Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, said the deal brought tremendous hope to Iran, a country with a very young population but few employment opportunities. On the day of its implementation, Hart said, Iran even had a countdown to the exact moment the sanctions were lifted. Since an economy cannot change overnight, these high hopes primed people for disappointment, she added.
To make matters worse, the JCPOA only eliminated a portion of U.S.-imposed sanctions, Hart said. Some experts have even argued that the U.S. did not fulfill their promises when it came to the sanctions that were included in the deal, she added.
Then Trump entered the mix as a presidential candidate, bombarding media outlets with promises to end the nuclear deal. Trump’s rhetoric fostered uncertainty about the U.S.’s commitment and scared many business away from investing in Iran, Hart said.
But despite its flaws, people like Shakeri and Yazdani still took advantage of the JCPOA, seeking to improve conditions in Iran. With Trump vowing to impose harsher regulations than ever, their hopes may be dashed.
Yazdani said he won’t give up, though, and that he will keep working from Berlin to help kickstart his country’s economy. People in all countries are the same, he said. They are not looking for battles, they are looking for opportunities.
“Iranian people are just looking for peace, like other populations,” Yazdani said. “I think every people, every population, deserves to be in a good situation.”
*Sam is a fake name for one of our sources. Because speaking against the Iranian government can come with severe political consequences, he spoke under the condition of anonymity.