#NoSanctionsonIran: Digital Activism and Iran Solidarity Politics, By Niki Akhavan and Sima Shakhsari

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This interview originally appeared on Jadaliyya.

Jadaliyya: Sanctions have been in place against Iran for decades, ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Can you tell us about how and why you decided to launch this campaign now just as President Biden has taken office? 

Sima: The sanctions are not new, and neither is our fight against the sanctions. For some of us, this campaign is a continuation of our ongoing social justice activism against the sanctions and U.S. intervention in the Middle East. The U.S. sanctions have debilitated the Iranian population and subjected them to slow death for a long time now. But these sanctions became really aggressive over the last ten years, especially after the 2010 “crippling sanctions” under Obama. The temporary relief that came with the signing of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) in 2016 was more than reversed after Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and imposition of “maximum pressure” in 2018. During the pandemic, there has been heightened urgency, more than ever before, to ask the U.S. to lift the sanctions against the Iranian people. 

As much as Biden’s presidency has been a relief from the catastrophes of the Trump era, there is no guarantee that Biden will lift the sanctions on Iran. In fact, as we expected, there is a tense standoff between Iran and the United States. Unfortunately, instead of reversing Trump’s hateful actions, which compromised the possibility of diplomacy, the Biden administration is continuing the sanctions on the Iranian people. The history of sanctions around the world shows that sanctions hurt ordinary people, not governments. 

Niki: If ordinarily robust economies are suffering under the strain of the pandemic, imagine the situation in Iran, where the economy was already at a breaking point due to sanctions. According to reports in mid-February, Iran is now worried about a fourth wave of Covid deaths as a result of the highly infectious new strain of the virus. Iranians are facing a grim Nowruz (the Iranian New Year on 21 March). The Biden administration has moved swiftly to reverse some of Trump’s harmful policies targeting people from West Asia and North Africa, such as repealing the Muslim ban and halting support for Saudi strikes on Yemen. Ending sanctions on Iran should also be at the top of this to-do list. 

Jadaliyya: Tell us about this new coalition, nosanctionsoniran.org?

Sima: Our coalition is made up of people who believe that the sanctions on Iran should be lifted immediately. While only a handful of us have volunteered our time to make and maintain the website and social media, we consider people who join us by sending videos, those who have contributed their art and music, those who join our panels and show their solidarity with the Iranian people, and all the organizations that endorse our campaign to be a part of this coalition.  This is a grassroots coalition. We try to collaborate with anyone who is passionate about stopping the deadly sanctions on Iran, from academics and artists to activists, non-profit organizations, and small business owners. This means that we have many differences and may not agree on many things, but we all agree on one thing: sanctions should end immediately!  

Jadaliyya: What kinds of strategies are you using for this campaign? What are your major goals?  

Niki: We have several related goals. We want to raise awareness about the devastating impact of sanctions on the lives and rights of ordinary people and to clear up a lot of misinformation around the purpose and impact of sanctions, with the ultimate goal of ending sanctions on Iran. Unfortunately, we have also seen intimidation tactics against those who raise their voices against the sanctions or even merely question their efficacy. Many people who simply point out the documented negative consequences of sanctions or who tell the stories of their loved ones suffering due to sanctions are accused of shilling for the Iranian government or, worst yet, being paid lobbyists. It is a felony to be an unregistered lobbyist for any foreign government, so these are not light accusations! It is a very hostile environment in which to operate and forces a false choice between either critiquing the Iranian state or calling for an end to policies that hurt the Iranian people. My stance is that both must happen at the same time: one can and must speak out against the Iranian state’s corruption and violations of the rights of its people while also revealing the cruelties of foreign policies that are ostensibly aimed at helping the people of Iran. It is my hope that this campaign can also chip away at some of the false binaries that have been deliberately presented to the American and Iranian publics. For too long the narrative has been shaped by profiteers of the current US policies (profiteers inside Iran and the U.S. alike) at great cost to the peoples of both countries. 

Sima: Our campaign at this point seeks to: 1. raise awareness about the deadly consequences of the sanctions on the Iranian people and 2. encourage the Biden administration to lift the deadly sanctions on Iran. We are focusing on a social media campaign, so our strategies are specific to the digital medium. We made a website, started a YouTube Channel, a Facebook page, a Twitter page, and an Instagram page. In the first phase of our campaign, we hope to educate Americans who use social media about the effects of the sanctions on ordinary people. In addition to posting educational videos on YouTube and social media, we have tried to provide information on our website. We have organized a roundtable on March 16th, which marks Charshanbeh suri (the last Tuesday of the year on the Iranian calendar), and is three days before the anniversary of the 2003 U.S. war in Iraq. Noura Erakat, Negar Mortazavi, Assal Rad, and Zainab Saleh will be discussing the effects of sanctions and embargoes on the people of Iran, Iraq, and Palestine and will draw connections between these forms of collective punishment. 

The second phase of our campaign is the Norouz 1400 day of action on March 21. We hope that the year 1400 (according to the Solar Hijri calendar) will bring an end to the sanctions on Iran. Ultimately, our goal is to put pressure on the Biden administration to lift the sanctions completely, or at least to go back to the JCPOA. So, we will continue this work until we get results. 

Jadaliyya: You have both published on the dynamics of Iranian social media. Can you give our readers a sense of the terrain of digital activism in Iran and about Iran? Can you situate the no sanctions campaign within that broader context? How do you engage with the advantages and disadvantages of social media platforms for activism?

Niki: Like much of the broader digital terrain, the Iranian digital space is highly polarized, and this polarization has been exacerbated by other forms of media. The sorry state of broadcasting inside Iran has driven viewers to foreign-funded satellite channels like the Saudi-funded Iran International or Man-o-to TV, which has never responded to calls for transparency about its funding. Viewers inside Iran are thus caught between two misinformation machines, a polarity that is also apparent online. A coalition like ours which is critical of both US and Iranian state policies is not likely to get a platform on outlets that have a vested interest in the status quo of a bad relationship between the US and Iran. Add to this the affordances of social media platforms themselves, the prevalence of troll accounts and troll farms, as well as the ways that the algorithms favor certain kinds of engagement, and you don’t exactly have a recipe for an arena conducive to the open exchange of ideas. And big tech’s hamfisted attempts to moderate bad behavior online are inconsistent and lack transparency, often reproducing the same power dynamics that the internet was supposed to allow us to move beyond. Despite these disadvantages, social media platforms still provide opportunities for ordinary folks to get their message out, especially when that message is not likely to get an airing in other venues. For all of the reasons I just mentioned, it will likely be an uphill battle, but I am hopeful that when people have had a chance to examine our arguments and our message, they will join our call for an end to sanctions. 

Sima: In my view, Iranian social media, as a part of a transnational Iranian civil society, is also a site of cybergovernmentality. By this I mean that the digital realm is not just where Iranians find freedom or “practice democracy,” but it is deeply implicated in biopolitical and necropolitical practices that seek to normalize the Iranian population (online and offline) at the same time that they subject Iranians to injury and death. We cannot talk about the digital realm without taking into consideration geopolitics, NGOs, think tanks, diasporic media, neoliberal digital entrepreneurs, and biopolitical and necropolitical practices of the empire. So, while we use social media for this campaign, I have no illusions about the limits of the digital realm. For example, Google Ads did not allow our ad campaign video to run, on the grounds that it falls under the “sensitive events” category. Facebook has also restricted our posts and does not allow us to run ads. Censorship in the digital realm is real, whether it is done in the name of freedom or in the name of morality. And we are also aware of the use of internet-mediated communications in so-called democratization projects that often involve massive investment in propaganda, strategies that recycle the logic of the Cold War (such as the language of lifting the “electronic curtain” in Iran) and that proliferate discourses of “freedom” and “democracy” by representing Iranian women as victims in need of liberation from the “Islamic regime.” Plus there is always the presence of trolling, hacking, and computer viruses such as Stuxnet. At the same time, we also believe in the creative potential of social media and the possibilities that it can open for dissent.

For me, the hardest part of this campaign is to display the misery of the most vulnerable segments of the Iranian society in order to show what sanctions have done to the Iranian people. I myself am highly critical of the deployment of this form of representation. However, when we are fighting against an incredibly well-funded propaganda machine that minimizes the violence of the sanctions, I find myself making videos and using images in order to incite feelings of compassion that have been deactivated when it comes to Iranians. When it comes to Iranian people’s deaths, you don’t see displays of solidarity on social media. This is in stark contrast to the way that affective mobilizations mourn deaths of (white) North Americans and Europeans, for example in the Je Suis Charlie movement.  And this is not only because fear and disgust are the only affects that stick to Iranian bodies (to borrow from Sara Ahmed), but also because the Iranian people have been made available to injury and death as those who pose a risk to “our way of life.” In this war of position, where we are up against the empire’s  propaganda machine (which includes certain segments of the Iranian diaspora and the U.S. State Department funded Persian-language media), images of suffering take a different meaning: We are not asking for the white savior industrial complex and the U.S. war machine to rescue Iranians who are dying from dangerous levels of air pollution. We are not asking for pity from Americans to rescue poor Iranian children who are dying from the lack of access to chemo medicine. On the contrary, we are saying, spare us your “help.” Let the Iranian people live, and let them live a livable life. Because your sanctions, your promise of freedom, and your “rights” are killing us softly. Of course, some diaspora Iranians have resorted to proving their human-ness by showing images of Iran’s rich heritage and culture, or by demonstrating their market virility and insisting on their proximity to whiteness. By contrast, showing the reality for millions of Iranians who are struggling and suffocating under the sanctions and the state austerity measures is to lay bare the violence of the sanctions. Showing these images neither seeks to stage a masculinist performance of (white) pride and invincibility, nor does it seek to fetishize poverty and portray Iranians as victims in need of rescue. We are saying Iranian people are fully capable of fighting state oppression and changing discriminatory laws. But sanctions make these movements extremely difficult and jeopardize the possibility of meaningful change from within. 

Jadaliyya: In the statement announcing the campaign on the website nosanctionsoniran.org, you begin by writing “We are a group of feminist Iranian-American scholars, students, activists, and artists who are concerned about the deadly effects of the U.S. sanctions on the Iranian people.” Can you explain more about how you see sanctions as a feminist issue?  

Sima: First, as we say on our website and in many of the videos, while sanctions hurt all Iranians, those who suffer the most are the vulnerable segments of the Iranian population. This often includes working class people, especially working class women, single mothers, queer and trans people, Afghan refugees, especially refugee women, and women who live in impoverished provinces such as Sistan/Baluchestan and Khuzestan. 

Second, as a scholar of transnational and postcolonial feminism, I do not think that gender and sexuality are trajectories that can be analyzed independent of class, ethnicity, race, religion, nationalism, diasporas, imperialism, global capitalism, and neoliberalism(s). This means that gender-exclusionary and discriminatory laws against women cannot be analyzed without taking into consideration the economic effects of the sanctions, or its environmental effects, for that matter. Put differently, we cannot afford to take a reductive single-issue approach to women, gender, or feminism.  

Third, sanctions are war by another name. Many feminists have written about the negative effects of war and sanctions on women because of the rise in securitization, militarism, and nationalism. For example, anthropologists Nadje Al Ali and Zainab Saleh have written about the effects of the U.S. sanctions on Iraqi women and the way that competition over resources and the loss of social solidarity led to increased insecurity, which in turn jeopardized women’s position in the society and increased violence against women. I am afraid that by impoverishing the majority of Iranians, sanctions on Iran are moving the society in that direction. 

Fourth, the sanctions reverse the gains of the women’s movement over the past four decades, as the state conflates all social justice movements with insurrections that threaten “national security.” While we are attentive to the exclusionary policies and practices of the Iranian state, we do not see the state as having monopoly over power. Our feminist analyses cannot afford to be limited to the state, but has to include para-state entities such as diasporas, NGOs, social media, and “democratization” projects that participate in the management of lives and deaths of the Iranian population. For example, we need to pay attention to how the U.S. necropolitical practices in the Middle East subject certain populations to death and debilitation through wars and sanctions, while the U.S. turns a blind eye to gross violations of human rights in Israel and Saudi Arabia, major U.S. allies in the region. As I said, this does not mean that we ignore the gender-exclusionary and discriminatory policies of the Iranian state towards women, trans people, and queers. But we need to develop a complex feminist analysis that does not leave out the role of global capitalism and geopolitics.

Lastly, we know that the U.S. often imposes war and sanctions in the name of saving women and queers. To invoke Spivak’s famous statement, wars and sanctions are manifestations of “white men saving brown women from brown men.” So, following postcolonial and transnational feminist scholars, we reject the instrumentalization of Iranian women’s suffering for U.S. geopolitical and economic interests. 

Niki: I don’t really have anything to add to Sima’s thorough explanation of why sanctions are a feminist issue. But I would like to take the opportunity to add that I think being pro-sanctions is profoundly anti-feminist. I am astonished by those who try to frame sanctions as somehow aimed at helping the women’s movement in Iran or overcoming other forms of inequality when it is abundantly clear that sanctions most harm both social movements and populations most vulnerable in the face of social or state injustice.   

Jadaliyya: In the video testimonials on the website, we hear a range of voices, some from within Iran and most from outside Iran, describing the cruel impact of sanctions. In listening to these moving accounts, one hears again and again about the shortages of life-saving medicines, the inflation and poverty, and about the combined impact of increased domestic state repression and intense aggression by the United States. Can you talk about the complexity of how sanctions interact with domestic politics in Iran? Can you also reflect on how this complexity informs Iranian diasporic acts of transnational solidarity with Iranians in Iran?

Niki: In my earlier response about the Iranian digital sphere, I pointed out that it is polarized and often hostile, and this is sadly also reflected in offline diasporic and domestic spaces as well. Acts of transnational solidarity can be tricky in the best of circumstances, much less when there are competing interests and complex issues to deal with as in the case of Iran. 

Even right after the JCPOA, many conservative factions in Iran were openly against it, blaming Rouhani’s administration for acceding too much. This is despite the fact that no such agreement would have been possible without the ultimate approval of Khamenei. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA along with his “maximum pressure” campaign provided an “I told you so” moment for the factions that were against the deal to begin with. In other words, the imposition of sanctions fed into and helped the rhetoric of the most hardline elements of the ruling system.  

At the time of this writing, we now seem to be in a “you first” impasse between the U.S. and Iran: the U.S. is insisting that Iran go back to full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, while Iran claims that the US should be the one to return to the deal and remove the sanctions since the US was the one to leave the agreement under Trump. And, of course, domestic critics of the JCPOA inside Iran and the US are attempting to use this moment of impasse in ways that serve their own political agendas.   

This bigger political game complicates the situation of an ordinary person or an activist, inside Iran or in the diaspora, who is against sanctions but doesn’t want to sound like someone towing the Iranian government’s official line. In creating a space where anti-sanctions work can occur alongside the unequivocal condemnation of both Iranian state repression and US aggressions, I hope the campaign can break the false proposition that calling for an end to sanctions implies an alignment with the Iranian state. Sanctions have not only devastated the population, but have provided a convenient scapegoat used to avoid responsibility for bad state policies and corruption. Stopping sanctions is the right thing to do not only because it ends a policy of collective punishment of a population of 83 million, but also because it is a necessary step toward holding the Iranian state responsible.

Sima: Sanctions make dissent extremely difficult, if not impossible. You may recall that people’s legitimate protests in 2019, which were in response to austerity measures, were labeled by the Iranian state as having been instigated by foreign governments. This is neither surprising nor new. As I said in response to the previous question, sanctions are war by another name. In times of war, nationalist sentiments, militarization, policing, and surveillance increase and dissent is suppressed in the name of “national security.” Iran is not an exception to this, of course. We saw gross violations of civil liberties in the name of national security in the U.S. after September 11, 2001. And we have this any time there is a war, like in Iraq.  

And again, it is not new that every war has its own profiteers. In Iran too, war and sanctions profiteers, along with corrupt elements–some connected to the state and some not–take advantage of the situation and exploit people’s suffering. Middle class people who have to work 2-3 jobs to make ends meet get frustrated when they see visible disparities in wealth. This is exactly what sanctions aim to accomplish. In fact, notwithstanding the U.S. claims of imposing sanctions to stop Iran’s nuclear activity or human rights violations, the U.S. sanctions are put in place to increase economic suffering, which subsequently lead to discontent among people. That is why many of the legitimate complaints and protests in Iran have been in response to inflation, environmental degradation, price hikes, lack of access to medicine, and lack of access to clean water. Of course, this has a lot to do with sanctions, but state mismanagement gives rise to grievances and protests as well. The increased liberalization of the Iranian economy by the state under the pressure of economic sanctions has led to growing austerity measures. Sanctions have played an important role in increasing poverty and misery, and by extension, dissatisfaction and disillusionment, among many Iranians. 

On the other hand, because of the U.S. investment and interest in regime change in Iran, the Iranian state has become increasingly paranoid and incarcerates protesters and activists, from worker’s rights and environmental justice activists to women’s rights activists and writers. Unfortunately, regime change opportunists, including the “liberating states” and the opposition groups in diaspora, appropriate these movements without any accountability. In doing so, they jeopardize the lives of these activists who are accused of treason and collusion with regime change elements. Some examples of this form of appropriation, about which I have written in my book, include Farah Diba’s instrumentalization of the women’s rights protests in 2006 and 2007 and the hijacking of the Girls of the Revolution Street by Trump and Massih Alinejad. In a way, the Iranian protesters and activists are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They either have to risk imprisonment because of the appropriation of their cause by regime-change forces and the state’s paranoid reaction, or they have to be silent fearing the appropriation of their cause by opportunistic groups and military intervention by “liberating states.” Last but not least, under these conditions, when people live in survival mode, other matters seem trivial and inevitably take the back seat.  

In terms of diasporic solidarity, I believe that a form of politics that allows an in-between position is crucial. Unfortunately, many pro-sanctions diaspora groups and individuals have a very similar approach to the Iranian state in that they accuse anyone who is against the sanctions of being complicit with the “regime.” The irony is that some of us who cannot go back to Iran are accused of getting paid by the “regime” to work on this campaign. This myopic Manichean logic (you are either with us or against us) makes activism inside Iran and in the diaspora extremely difficult. 

Jadaliyya: What is your response to Iranians and others who wish to shift the purpose of sanctions from curbing Iran’s nuclear program to addressing human rights abuses? 

Niki: Holding the Iranian authorities accountable for abuses and violations is a main concern of many Iranians and Iranian-Americans, myself included. However, economic sanctions on the nation by definition harm the entire country, with ordinary people and especially the vulnerable at most risk. I don’t see how any economic sanctions can even be framed as a defense of human rights given how clearly they result in the violation of people’s basic rights. There have been attempts to link human rights abuses to sanctions in other ways, such as the call to disallow Iran’s participation in international sports following the September 2020 execution of wrestler Navid Afkari. To me, this was a cruel and bizarre campaign. Given the few pleasures of an Iranian population suffering under sanctions and all the difficulties Iranian athletes face inside of Iran, this call for exclusion seemed like yet another attempt to further the suffering of Iranian people in the disguise of helping them. Of course, that leaves open the question of how then to address these violations. Personally, I have no problem with targeted sanctioning of specific state figures or even institutions for human rights abuses alongside other mechanisms for holding individuals and states responsible for their actions. However, the important caveat here is that even such actions should not be carried out unilaterally or inconsistently.

Sima: Let me answer this question with a question: Why do we assume that the U.S. should be in the position to impose sanctions on Iran at all? Why are we naturalizing the sanctions regimes and the “national order of things” by giving the U.S. the license to punish other states, in the name of human rights or nuclear weapons? This reminds me of our childhood story, “Khaleh Sooskeh,” where Ms. Cockroach walks around town looking for a husband. The first question she asks her suitors is, “If i marry you, how will you punish me?” At the end she happily marries Mr. Mouse who responds, “With my soft and long tail!” Why should Khaleh Sooskeh or Iranains expect to be punished in the first place?! Perhaps the other question we need to ask is: Why are these sanctions not imposed on the U.S. allies who possess nuclear weapons and who have horrible records of human rights abuses? Israel has not even signed the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) and has nuclear missiles. Israel and Saudi Arabia, both have lengthy records of gross human rights violations, not only against Palestinians and Yemenis, but also against their own citizens. Why are there no comprehensive sanctions on them?

There is no doubt that the Iranian state has to be held accountable for imprisoning activists, lawyers, and scholars. But the Iranian people, and not the U.S. rescue mission, should be in charge of that task. We saw that the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was false. We saw that claims of rescuing women in Afghanistan and Iraq through sanctions and wars were excuses for U.S. geopolitical and economic domination. Whether they are imposed in the name of nuclear activity, weapons of mass destruction, or human rights abuses, sanctions harm innocent people by creating insecurity, civil wars, and poverty. The U.S. sanctions and wars have made the lives of women in Iraq and Afghanistan worse than before. Why do we think that they would have different results in Iran? 

Jadaliyya: Tell us about the #nosanctionsonIran March 21 Nowruz action. What are your plans and what are your hopes for what might come next? 

Sima: March 21st is our Social Media Day of Action. We are hoping to have as many people as possible post the hashtag #nosanctionsoniran on their social media at 12 PM CST. If we can have thousands of people do this, hopefully we can attract the Biden administration’s attention and tell the U.S. politicians that their policies are hurting ordinary people and not the Iranian government. We decided to have this action on the second day of Nowruz, because we want a new policy and approach towards Iran in the new year. We will also release an open letter on that day to draw attention to the devastating impact of sanctions on the Iranian people. Our hope is that this grassroots effort will raise awareness about the deadly sanctions on Iran and will be a step towards the lifting of the sanctions on Iran once and for all. 

Niki: As Sima said, Nowruz is a time of celebrations and new beginnings, and we thought it would be the perfect occasion to bring attention to our message. This year’s Nowruz marks the end of the 14th century in the Iranian calendar, making the symbolism of a new start even more poignant. I hope this day of action will be successful in raising awareness and lifting our voices so that they may be heard by the Biden administration. 

Jadaliyya’s Iran Page interviewed Sima Shakhsari and Niki Akhavan about their efforts in the “No Sanctions on Iran” campaign, a digital activist initiative designed to raise awareness about the deleterious effects of U.S. sanctions on everyday people and politics in Iran. Shakhsari and Akhavan are both feminist scholars of Iranian media production.
Sima’s work has been shaped by experiences of living through a revolution, a war, and displacement. Multiple itineraries, from Tehran to San Francisco, Oakland, Toronto, Houston, suburbs of Boston, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis have inspired Sima’s activism, poetry, and scholarship on immigration, queerness, refugeedom, and geopolitics. Sima’s commitment to social justice is informed by the relationship between people’s struggles transnationally.
Niki Akhavan is an assistant professor of media studies at the Catholic University of America. Her research interests include new media and transnational political and cultural production; international cinema and national identity; state sponsored and oppositional propaganda; documentary and social change; post-colonial and critical theory; Iranian cultural studies. She is the author of Electronic Iran: The Cultural Politics of an Online Evolution.
Suggested citation: Akhavan, N., and S. Shakhsari. 10 March 2021. “#NoSanctionsonIran: Digital Activism and Iran Solidarity Politics.” Jadaliyya: https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/42479