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U.S. Sanctions, COVID-19 Deal Double Blow To Iran's Economy


Iran's economy is suffering under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, of course. But there's also ongoing American sanctions for what U.S. officials call Iran's malign behavior. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wants the United Nations to reinstate other sanctions, too. But so far, those efforts have met with resistance. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul has been calling ordinary Iranians about their problems making ends meet.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Iranians have long been known for their ability to weather hardship. Sanctions, shortages and financial struggles are longtime features of the economic landscape. So the Iranian response to the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign is a familiar one - just keep struggling on. In a speech last month, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said there was no point in negotiating with the Americans, who would just use the talks for propaganda purposes.

I reached out to one couple, Amir and his wife Mitra. I've spoken with them in the past without using their family name so they can speak freely about the government. And this time, Amir says, things have gotten much worse.

AMIR: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: He says most, if not all, businesses are inactive, as far as he can tell. He and his wife manage beehives, and they've devoted themselves to their honey business as the pandemic crushed the economy. The honey is all that's left, he says, because no one has the money to buy beehives or queen bees these days. Mitra says she's noticed that it took quite a while for better-off Iranians to realize how desperate things were getting.

MITRA: (Through interpreter) Especially people in higher or middle class won't really understand the depths of the catastrophe for a while. Now, especially after the virus started, we can see that that class of people has also realized what is happening.

KENYON: The administration's campaign aims to pressure Tehran into negotiating a new nuclear agreement to replace the one President Trump pulled out of two years ago and to stop Iran's support for militant groups in the Mideast. That, plus the pandemic, is causing problems for many Iranians, including Sareh. She and her husband run a small woodworking business in Tehran. But since the pandemic hit, the collapse of the rial has chased most of their customers away.

SAREH: (Through interpreter) And because of the reduction of income among Iranian families, middle class has been shrinking more and more, and the middle class was our target market. But now they cannot afford to buy the things that we are producing.

KENYON: She says with everyone's savings exhausted, people think something has to happen soon - either improvement or a complete collapse. Amir says the government has been in denial, acting, he says, like a child digging deep in a bag of candy for the last piece. But he says at least some officials finally seem to be starting to realize the hole they're in.

AMIR: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: "Iranian government has always suffered from incompetence and poor decision-making," he says, adding, "those in charge aren't very smart. They're not big thinkers. That's nothing new." "But," he adds, "they've never been in a situation this bad before, and they're starting to admit it." But none of the people who spoke with NPR think the government will be able to turn things around anytime soon. Even so, says Amir, he doesn't see much chance of the regime falling unless the opposition gets a lot more organized than it is today.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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