ISU Members Talk Soleimani, Sanctions and Iranian Culture

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Illustration by Ry X

*Pseudonym used to protect source’s identity

From sanctions to the brink of war, the world’s attention has been fixed on Iran. On Jan. 3, a U.S. airstrike killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani while on a diplomatic envoy in Iraq. Early Jan. 8, a dozen missiles fired from Iran landed in two Iraqi-American military bases. As tensions between the U.S. and Iran reached a boiling point that day, the Iranian military shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet flying over their capital in Tehran, killing all aboard. 

But caught between these two nations’ hostility is a population of 84 million Iranians — a population that has gone without food or gasoline because of U.S. sanctions, faced brutal crackdowns at the hands of their own government and now live in fear of foreign invasion.

City on a Hill Press (CHP) spoke with two members of UC Santa Cruz’s Iranian Student Union (ISU) about the recent political turmoil in Iran and how these events have affected Iranians all over the world. 

Shayda Hami is the president of the ISU. Like many Iranian-Americans, one of her parents emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s, fleeing the turmoil of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. She grew up in Irvine, California. 

Sahar Ghafari* is a UCSC graduate student who was born and raised in Iran and came to the U.S. on a student visa about a year ago. Responses from Ghafari were shared in written form over email. 

CHP: After the killing of Soleimani, it seems like there have been two conflicting stories about how the Iranian people actually feel about their government and the United States. On the one hand, The New York Times reported huge turnout at Soleimani’s funeral, with some attendees shouting things like ‘Death to America’ and calling for more retaliatory actions against the U.S. military. But on the other hand, a lot of Iranians have been speaking out against their government, especially after the country raised gas prices in November of last year and shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet last week. So what’s being lost in translation? 

Hami: “Don’t be fooled, because a lot of those people were forced to go [to Soleimani’s funeral] by the Iranian government. […] The Iranian government tried to make [Soleimani] seem out like a martyr. And Iranians take being a martyr very seriously, especially after the Revolution. Everywhere you go in Iran, there are pictures of martyrs on the buildings, on the walls. So some view this guy as a martyr [and saw his killing] as an attack on Iranian existence.”

Ghafari: “I should point out that although most Iranians oppose the [Iranian] government’s foreign policy and its involvement in countries such as Iraq and Syria, they are opposed to U.S. policies in the Middle East and find the U.S. presence to be a cause for many problems. Generally speaking, none of the words that condemn the Islamic Republic are in support of the U.S. government because neither of these governments care about the people of Iran or the Middle East.”

CHP: What else is the mainstream media getting wrong about Iran?

Hami: “Iranian people are some of the most generous people I’ve ever met in my life. […] There’s even a word in Farsi, that’s not translatable in American English, because it’s just non-existent in American culture, and that word is ‘tarof.’ And ‘tarof’ is being overly nice, all of the time, with whatever you do. You open the door for someone, ‘Oh please, please go through the store before I do.’ […] And there are sayings of tarof. Things like, ‘I would die for you,’ or there’s one that’s like, ‘I hope your hand doesn’t hurt.’ […] It’s really frustrating because that should be the face of Iranian culture and Iranian people, as being this overly generous and kind group.” 

CHP: With all the unrest that’s been sweeping Iran since the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and started passing new economic sanctions on the country, could you argue that the Trump administration’s policies have been successful by their own reckoning, and that the Iranian people might overthrow the current government because of them?

Hami: “People are starting to be a lot more vocal with the corruption of the Iranian government because they realized this was an act of the Iranian government, this plane crash, killing those 176 people. […] But in terms of sanctions, sanctions for a fact are a form of economic war. […] People can’t afford to buy bread, to buy simple food to eat. […] They can’t trust the Iranian government, because one, they’ll raise gas prices and intend to try and find revenue out of the people. And they can’t trust the American government either because they’re the ones imposing sanctions. So the Iranian people are left with this idea that they can’t trust anyone. […] But I really don’t know. We did overthrow the government in 1979. Maybe we can do it again.”

CHP: What’s it like seeing all this unrest and violence in Iran from thousands of miles away?

Ghafari: “Financial hardships, severe repressions, political prisoners, people who were killed two months ago, fear of starting a war and the victims of the plane crash are some of the terrible news that Iranians are dealing with these days. Although living in Iran has always been difficult, I have never seen such dark days in Iran. These days people are coming back to the streets to protest against the regime. The regime is again suppressing, arresting and shooting people.”

CHP: What can UCSC students do to help their classmates of Iranian heritage?

Hami: “The biggest thing that we can do is try and support them and raise awareness. […] I know this is a really difficult time for a lot of the students on campus. Because they don’t know what’s gonna happen — I don’t know what’s gonna happen — and that’s the scariest part.”

CHP: What’s your dream scenario for Iran and the U.S.’s foreign policy toward it?

Ghafari: “My wish these days is for the people who have come to the streets to win and another revolution to take place after 40 years. I also hope to see a day when the U.S. does not interfere in any of the issues in Iran and the Middle East.”

The ISU plans to hold a vigil for the 176 passengers of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, who died after the Iranian military fired two surface-to-air missiles at the plane on Jan. 8. The vigil will be held at 8 p.m. on Jan. 16 at the Quarry Plaza.