A Mother’s Pain Bares the Rifts Tearing Iran Apart

Golnar Motevalli
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A Mother’s Pain Bares the Rifts Tearing Iran Apart

(Bloomberg) -- When Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran in 2013, supporters pinned their hopes on him to revive the country’s fortunes and rehabilitate its relationship with the rest of the world.

For retired teacher Manzar Zarabi, that hope crumbled into more insecurity, economic stagnation—and then unspeakable loss with the shooting down of an airplane that killed four close members of her family.

As Iranians vote in parliamentary elections this weekend, Zarabi’s story is a tragic reminder of how the country has alienated the very people who swept Rouhani to power seven years ago.

Rather than spearheading a new era, the educated, aspirational class that backs reform and global engagement remains caught in conflicts—both geopolitical and between state institutions at home. The destruction of the Ukrainian passenger jet full of Iranians by their own military last month provided the brutal denouement. 

Zarabi just wanted the best for her children. She and her husband voted for Rouhani hoping for an end to the sanctions and escalating tension with the U.S. that were strangling the country. But the respite was short lived. 

Last year, in the face of worsening economic conditions, the return of U.S. sanctions and a business environment overrun with cronyism, her 29-year-old son and youngest child, Alvand Sadeghi, gave up trying to start his own company and decided to depart for Canada. Her daughter, Sahand Sadeghi, 38, had already moved there several years earlier and started a family with her husband. Daughter Sophie Emami was born in 2014.

“They only left because of the economic pressures, otherwise they loved this country,” Zarabi, 64, said in an interview from Tehran as the 40 day memorial of their deaths approached. “Alvand left with tears in his eyes, he had to tear himself away. The economic situation had a big impact on his life, he just couldn’t sort out a proper life for himself here.”

Just like Sahand before him, Alvand sold his small, Iranian-assembled Peugeot 206 car and with some help from his parents started a new life in Toronto with his wife, Negar Borghei, who embarked on a master’s degree at McGill University. He was hired by an engineering firm and earned a good salary, his mother said.

The night before the four of them were due to head to the airport in Tehran, Zarabi said she was relieved that they were all leaving Iran. The country appeared to be on the brink of direct conflict with the Americans after they killed General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most revered military commander, in early January in a targeted hit in Iraq.  

“When I saw that night that there was an attack and there could be a war, I just wanted them to leave the country sooner, to be safer,” Zarabi said.

Alvand, Negar, Sahand and five-year-old Sophie were killed within minutes of taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport when two Iranian missiles hit their plane after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps mistook it for a cruise missile. All 176 people on board lost their lives. Hours earlier, Iran had started its retaliatory operation on U.S. bases in Iraq.   

The disaster seemed to crystallize the fortunes of the middle class, the traditional constituency of the reformist and moderate factions of Iran’s tightly controlled political sphere. Many have even less reason to engage now as hundreds of reformist candidates have been barred from standing in Friday’s election.

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For the past two years in particular, as tensions with Washington worsened, educated Iranians feel increasingly adrift from the political institutions that govern their lives and financially crushed by U.S. sanctions and President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy.  

“We’ve reached a historic peak in the division between society and the state,” Saeed Laylaz, an economist who was adviser to former reformist president Mohammad Khatami said. “It’s definitely growing, unfortunately, and I haven’t seen it as bad as this in the past 40 years.”   

Authorities covered up their culpability for the missile strike for three days. Rouhani said he didn’t know the truth until the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 10, suggesting that the highest level of government had been kept in the dark by its own military.

Iran is still investigating the incident, but that’s been fraught. The Ukrainian government has repeatedly called on Tehran to release the plane’s flight recorders to a country that has the technology to decode their data. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif  said this week his country won’t let the black boxes leave Iran and be decoded without the presence of Islamic Republic envoys.

“Hate and disgust,” Zarabi described her feelings immediately after learning what happened. “The lies on top of lies and a complete indifference to them having been actual human beings.”

U.S. sanctions have left few people in Iran unscathed. The collapse of the currency, the rial, by more than two thirds and the return of double-digit inflation mean only the country’s elites and industries protected by the state have been buffered from the worst effects of the downturn.

The impact on the squeezed middle is most keenly felt in a decline in living standards and spending power. The pressure is also hurting the value of their retirement incomes and the ability of their children to find jobs.  

About 4 million people who used to be in the middle class according to the standard of $11 purchasing power parity are no longer there, according to calculations by Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, professor of economics at Virginia Tech.

Zarabi and her family all voted for Rouhani and they fully supported the Iran nuclear deal. While she sees the U.S. as the primary cause of the regional insecurity that culminated in her children’s deaths, she says the men in charge of Iran’s government and armed forces are directly to blame for what happened, and she wants full accountability.

For the first time in the Islamic Republic’s history, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s most powerful institution, appeared before parliament to apologize and express his grief and regret over the incident.

But within days, hard-core supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the guards were invited onto panel shows to argue that the plane’s downing wasn’t a big deal and that it was tantamount to a jet flying into a mountain. Clips circulated on Twitter and Instagram caused outrage.

Iran’s state media have interviewed or profiled some families who lost loved ones on the Ukrainian International Airlines plane. All of them were either devout or have expressed strong support for Khamenei.

The news cycle has continued to be dominated by coverage of Soleimani’s revenge operation and tributes to his military talents and religious devotion. No resignations have so far been announced over the plane tragedy, but the judiciary said last month that an unspecified number of people had been arrested.  

A week after the disaster, Rouhani called for national unity, asking the judiciary to establish a special court to investigate. Striking a different tone two days later, Khamenei questioned whether those who protested the attack on the jet were the real people of Iran, or whether those who turned out in their millions to mourn Soleimani were more representative.

“The middle class is now between a government that has become increasingly more repressive and a U.S. that has become increasingly more aggressive,” said Ali Vaez, senior analyst and director of the Iran Project at the Washington-based International Crisis Group.

Two weeks after the tragedy, Zarabi received a call that four suitcases, belonging to her children, grandchild and daughter-in-law, would be delivered to her. The luggage was intact and unscathed, the neatly organized effects of a family life that no longer exists. The pilot had decided to offload some cargo because the plane was too heavy, Ukraine’s foreign minister said.

Zarabi’s days are now about finding reasons to keep going. Her husband speaks of ending his life. She hopes that she can summon the energy to find purpose again. “Our lives ended that day,” she said. “Nothing has any meaning for us anymore.”

--With assistance from Kateryna Choursina.

To contact the author of this story: Golnar Motevalli in Dubai at gmotevalli@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rodney Jefferson at r.jefferson@bloomberg.net

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