Nowruz, the celebration of the Persian New Year, is one of the most anticipated and festive holidays in Iran. In March 2020, Nowruz coincided with a declaration of a national lockdown as part of an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. When the lockdown announcement was made by President Hassan Rouhani, some very worrisome statistics were made public: More than 1,200 coronavirus deaths had been reported since February 18, and the Ministry of Health extrapolated this number as one casualty every 10 minutes. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei urged people to refrain from unnecessary activities outside of their homes, and this included partaking in the two-week long Nowruz festival.
While many Iranians across the Islamic Republic heeded the lockdown orders, quite a few were seen crowding the bazaars around Tehran on the eve of Nowruz. The few foreign journalists in the country were able to capture random images of joyous celebration, and digital video clips were shared on social networks. The reaction to these images was mixed; while some people labeled the festive behavior as irresponsible, others pointed out that the lockdown orders were issued just one day before Nowruz, which means that many people did not have time to adequately prepare and adjust.
For the good people of Iran, having to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and not being able to celebrate Nowruz are just two many hardships. Life has not been easy in the Islamic Republic ever since United States President Donald Trump took the unilateral decision to drop out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a move that has reignited friction between the two countries. In just one year following the abandonment of the JCPOA, tensions between Iran and the U.S. have turned the Persian Gulf and the Middle East into what some geopolitical analysts are calling a flashpoint but others describe as a powder keg. Millions of Iranians have been affected by this situation because of the drastic economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on the Islamic Republic.
Life for Iranian people has been an utter mess since early 2020, but it is important to establish a timeline in terms of how bad things are. The JCPOA was formally adopted in October 2015 and implemented in January 2016. Socioeconomic improvement was experienced almost immediately because a significant aspect of JCPOA consisted of easing sanctions and unfreezing millions of dollars held up since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Hope was palpable thanks to renewed economic development, so we can safely refer to this zeitgeist as life during the JCPOA.
The socioeconomic gains enjoyed by Iranian people during the JCPOA period were erased soon after the Trump administration pulled out of the deal. Old sanctions were reinstated and a fresh round of restrictions were imposed. It did not take long for Iranians to start suffering; the U.S. withdrew in May 2018, and economic forecasts looked dismal as early as October, which we can establish as “life after the JCPOA” in our timeline.
In the days before the beginning of the Nowruz festival, a few international news bureaus were able to conduct interviews with Iranians dealing with the COVID-19 lockdown. CNN interviewed a young man who was assigned “Kaveh” as a pseudonym. This is our first clue into life in Iran; whenever people seek anonymity when speaking to the press, we can assume repression and fear of reprisal by the regime are at play. Kaveh explained that the mood was somber and nothing like previous Nowruz celebrations during the JCPOA, when people still had reasons to be optimistic.
In the two years since the JCPOA came to an end, a Iranian life has turned into a state of constant uncertainty. It seems as if each day brings about new geopolitical friction not just with the U.S. but also with other nations in the Middle East; Iranians have not been happy with the way their political and religious leaders have been handling foreign policy, and this resulted in violent protests that took place in late 2019 and early 2020. It is very possible that protests would have continued if not for the COVID-19 pandemic, but national discontent is still there; in fact, it has increased because many Iranians feel that President Rouhani and the Ayatollah should not have obfuscated statistics related to coronavirus infections and deaths. There is also the matter of travel between Iran and China, which was not suspended until a few weeks after Wuhan became the COVID-19 epicenter of the world.
The Persian New Year is supposed to be a joyful time when families travel to visit friends and distant relatives. Street festivals feature music and poetry, and people build small bonfires to leap over as part of a tradition to keep illnesses away; this year, however, travel plans have been canceled, and Kaveh spoke about families who set up candles to jump over in lieu of the traditional bonfires. The initial defiance of lockdown orders was mostly during the first two days of the festival, and this had a lot to do with people stocking up on food, medications, cleaning products, and personal hygiene items. According to Kaveh, quite a few peoplewho visited bazaars sought gourmet ingredients to prepare at least one nice meal; they also wanted to get toys and treats for their children before going into quarantine.
The Iranian regime has rightfully appealed to the U.S. for an easement of sanctions during the pandemic in the name of humanitarian aid; this is a reasonable request that should be discussed by the United Nations, and it is something that Middle East experts such as Amir Handjani have written about. People are upset about the initial cover-up by the government, but they are trying to take things in stride. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has pledged to help Iran during these trying times, and this is good news because the Indian public health system is known to be robust and resourceful, but this will not be enough to assuage fears among the populace. If anything, we know that the people of Iran will prevail because they come from strong Persian stock, but they are facing an undeniably difficult challenge.