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An icy wind slaps my face as I step onto Rahahan (Railway) Square, one of Tehran’s busiest transit hubs. I walk by a grass field next to a rectangular pool; the train station, a wide marble building with lengthwise windows like multiple eyes, stares at me from the other end. As a child during another war — between 1980 and 1988, between Iran and Iraq — my family’s journey home, after summertime visits to relatives in Tehran, began from this place; I’d carry our bag of chicken slaw sandwiches as we ran to catch the train back to our hometown in southern Iran, where battle raged at the border. Today I pass a young trash picker, maybe thirteen, pulling himself out of a garbage bin. A mother is squatting with a child in her lap, her face covered by her navy scarf and her hand held up for alms.
It is January of 2021, and Iran’s third COVID-19 wave has just plateaued. For months now, I’ve been trying to write a story about what it has been like for a country to experience US sanctions and a pandemic at the same time. There has been an invisible war on my country throughout my lifetime. And then there came a disease. Even as we fought live during a pandemic, we were already ravaged by an unseen conflict. Two chaoses merged.
Today, I am looking for people who were first in the line of fire. I’ve come to the train station to meet Ms. Alizadeh*, a forty-four-year-old technician at the neonatal intensive care unit of a nearby hospital.
We see each other and say hello behind our masks. She has milky-white skin and eyes the shape of eucalyptus leaves, oval and elongated. She wears a green flower-print scarf pinned at the chin under her black chador. I’ve met her at the hospital before and know she moved to Tehran a decade ago, from a village five hours away.
When her only child was two years old, her husband was diagnosed with a chronic illness that left him unable to work, and Alizadeh became her family’s sole breadwinner. “On some days, I had nothing to feed us but dry bread and water,” she remembers. Alizadeh had to quickly devise a plan out of hunger. She looked for work at the hospital, starting out on the cleaning staff. It was immense physical labor, but it also meant that Alizadeh could afford to feed the three of them. “My money then had barkat (blessings); I could stretch it to pay for our needs,” she says.
This is no longer the case. Less than a year after the US government restored sanctions against Iran, in 2018, food prices soared. Alizadeh had to cut down beef consumption to a single kilogram a month. She chopped it into pieces the size of peas, which she put into stews. Alizadeh ate the broth and gave the meat to her husband and child, who “needed the nutrients,” she says.
They were experiencing what the economic analyst Yar Batmanghelij calls “the weaponization of inflation” — an inflation forced upon people in countries under economic blockades. Sanctions have been suffocating Iran’s sources of revenue, devaluing our currency and strangulating our economy. The most immediate impact on the street is soaring prices.
Around the same time, Alizadeh started feeling “immense joint and muscle pain, as if my body was hollow and I would collapse to the ground.” Walking and even breathing became difficult. After multiple doctors and rounds of testing, she ended up in an oncologist’s office. He told her that she had cancer. The chemotherapy normally recommended was now off limits. It was made in the European Union, and because of American sanctions, official imports had stopped altogether, and therefore, insurance companies had stopped covering it. Sanctions on Iran are extraterritorial — they prohibit non-American businesses from trading with Iran — and Alizadeh’s prescription was now a black-market commodity; one dose would cost years of her salary. For weeks she assumed she would die of her illness without a chance at chemo. But Iranian pharmaceutical companies routinely develop domestic alternatives to foreign drugs. The doctor found her a substitute that was covered by insurance. She was relieved — so much more briefly than she expected.
And then, March of 2020. A twenty-nine-year-old nurse at the hospital where she worked died of a mysterious new illness. Alizadeh wanted to flee; she knew that catching it might leave her child an orphan, and her exposure was excessive: a two-hour commute on crowded subways and buses to then work in a hospital that could only provide surgical masks and latex gloves in limited numbers to employees. Her job could lead to her death, but without a job, she and her child would surely die anyway.
And so she continued to teach mothers how to breastfeed, even as they waited for their PCR tests. She had to iron the masks and reuse them. She visited the hospital lab multiple times a day, walking past patients waiting for their COVID test results.
I ask how she has kept herself together. She says she has been driven by a conviction: “God would allow me to care for my child.”
Alizadeh’s shift is beginning soon, so we start walking to the hospital. We pass women, men, and children asking for money or food. She stops to give money to a woman whose children are selling sheets of poetry. Despite her meager earnings, she makes donations to charity every week, recording them in her monthly budget notebook. “I remember when there were hardly any beggars in this neighborhood,” she says. “That’s why I give. There is such a narrow space between being able to live on the pride of one’s own work and being left to the streets.” She speaks with icy eyes and tight lips.
At the hospital entrance, she invites me inside for tea — a warm, fragrant cardamom tea with poolaki, a very thin, coin-like piece of candy infused with saffron and dried lime. In a white marble hall, we sit at a table next to four other nurses who are discussing a mother with opium addiction. We women — the nurses, Ms. Alizadeh, and I — sit facing the babies in incubators — a new generation born to this war.
All the women in this room have lived two wars now. The Iran-Iraq War of 1980–1988 was the backdrop of our childhood. The second war, which is perhaps more accurately a continuation of the last one, has no name. I call it a US-led war on Iran. To show it to you, I need to go back to before I was born — to 1979, the year a revolutionary movement overthrew Iran’s last monarch.
The king’s country was a friendly US client state where American military officers enjoyed diplomatic immunity, Henry Kissinger smoked hookah as a belly dancer frolicked around him, and the blond, blue-eyed model Lauren Hutton strutted on the ancient stone columns of Persepolis for Vogue. Then, in 1979, Iran was reborn — into a nation indignant about its place as the playground of empire. Iran’s revolutionary movement toppled the king and, when the US government gave him refuge on US soil, took Americans in Tehran hostage.
On the cover of Time, Iran’s leader was caricatured as a devilish cleric with red, sinister eyes. The Joker was chosen to represent Iran at the United Nations in an issue of the comic book Batman. Iran’s uprising would quickly solidify her into an evil nemesis. Sanctions — global economic blockades — became the primary American weapon against us.
Manu Karuka calls sanctions “imperialist siege warfare.” This economic war is waged on weaker countries by the world’s most powerful financial and military powers. The sanctioning economy is up to four hundred times larger than that of the target, argue Davis and Engerman. Sanctions appear to have no consequence for the imposing side yet devastate the livelihood of nations on which they are inflicted. Nicholas Mulder writes that sanctions “put a country on the road to social collapse.” In postrevolutionary Iran, this descendant of the medieval siege has been refined on the bodies of Iranians.
Ms. Alizadeh fought for her life throughout the Trump years, when Iran’s financial strangulation was led by the most unhinged American administration to date. Just as Trump reneged on the nuclear agreement that had given Iran some sanctions relief, he restored past sanctions and added new ones, vowing to bring “Iran’s oil to zero.” Oil exports are Iran’s main source of revenue; they dove from two million barrels per day in 2016 to two hundred thousand in 2019. In his memoir, Trump’s second secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, brags that “from 2017 to 2020, Iran’s GDP sank from $445 billion to $192 billion.” Iran’s working-class people, like Alizadeh, are always first to feel the blow of each sanctions regime: recession, inflation, and shortages, and all at once.
The US president reinforced the blockade with tweets of carnage and threats of military force. Sanctions and psychological warfare are intricately interlinked. The siege amplifies its immensity with threats of military force, which can materialize into total war. A day after ordering the assassination of Iran’s top general, Trump tweeted: “Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”
We had experienced this under previous American presidents, including Barack Obama. He, too, put “all options,” including military onslaught, on the table. Four years into his presidency, in 2012, Obama tweeted his vice president’s boastful words about their administration’s sanctions: “These are the most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions. Period.” Richard Nephew, Obama’s principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy, described sanctions as “pain” deployed on the “tendons, ligaments, and joints” of the “Iranian body economic.”
On the bodies of the sick, like my father, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2013, Obama and Nephew’s war was felt with minute precision. His chemotherapy was dispensed under strict protocols at a central public drugstore. My mother, brother, or I spent hours in line for each prescription; we met people from across Iran waiting for a plethora of drugs. If my father’s chemotherapy regimen turned out to be unavailable, we chased alternatives or treatment plan changes, rushing in loops from doctor to drugstore and back. We spent full days on the phone and at the insurance office trying to sort out our co-pay because of price increases. The hospital faced a nursing shortage, as well as wear and tear across the building, so my brother washed our father in the nephrology ward’s one working bathroom.
My father died of cancer while his country was under an economic blockade. The impact of sanctions would only be exacerbated in the years after, by the compounding sanctions regime and by COVID. Economist Djavad Salehi Isfahani writes that the pandemic “caught Iran at its weakest economic state since the end of the war with Iraq three decades ago.” He directly attributes the economic weakness the sanctions created with thousands more COVID deaths than would have happened were Iran not under sanctions.
Fatemeh Mohammadi-Nasrabadi, a scholar at the National Nutrition and Food Technology Research Institute, brings it back to the body. “Sanctions are making Iranians sicker,” she tells me, “by inducing malnourishment and limiting access to medical care. The pandemic has made it worse. Yet there is no system” — in Iran or anywhere else — “for tracking and tracing sanctions’ casualties.”
And so it is left to Iranians like Mohammadi-Nasrabadi to piece the picture together. One in three Iranians was living below the poverty line in 2019, a year after the US sanctions were reinstated, according to a report by the newspaper Donya-e-Eqtesad (World of Economics); the report attributes this to the high rate of inflation. Researchers Jalal Hejazi and Sara Emamgholipour found that food insecurity increased dramatically between 2017 and 2019 in urban and rural areas — a result, they conclude, of the economic vulnerability the sanctions caused. Since 2019, meat and fruit consumption have nearly halved; chickpeas, historically a staple food of the Iranian peasant, jumped in price by 112 percent in 2021 alone.
Iran’s health-care workers are key witnesses to the compounding impacts of hunger, medical shortages, and COVID. I had been following their tribulations in the hospital since 2018, when the sanctions sparked a new pharmaceutical crisis. Relatives and friends were suddenly calling contacts at drugstores to find medicine. Tweets pleading for help finding pharmaceuticals were retweeted hundreds of times. By 2021, the pharmaceutical crisis had become a care crisis — one that swallowed patients and care workers alike.
Dr. Foroughi is a doctor of internal medicine. As soon as the first suspected COVID-19 cases were announced, he volunteered to be on a team of frontline workers in the COVID ward. Dr. Foroughi’s wife is immunocompromised. They have two children, who were four and six when the pandemic began. To protect them against COVID, he lived at the hospital.
We speak in 2021. I ask him if, in those early days, he was afraid of dying and leaving his family. He says that both he and his wife were unafraid; that he couldn’t have made this decision without her support; that they both felt a patriotic call. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give meaning to one’s life by standing on the front line for our homeland,” he says, comparing himself to the volunteers in the Iran-Iraq War. But this time he saw his country up against enemies that were “hidden” — both the virus and the global pressure piling up on Iran before COVID, which he had seen greatly jeopardize the health-care system.
“We were used to pharmaceutical shortages, but after Trump it was a whole new level of scarcity,” he explains. And not only of medicine, he stresses. The hospital itself — its brick, mortar, and equipment — was in “slow demolition.” A malfunctioning CT scanner or MRI machine might take months to repair, delaying testing and treatment. But for him, material scarcity was not as devastating as the deterioration of the life of Iran’s health-care force. This, he tells me, is how sanctions “hollow out” a health-care system: “How can you expect a nurse or technician who shows up to work hungry to do their job?”
Sara Karimi*, the head nurse of an intensive care unit, has been a witness to the unraveling of Iran’s health-care force. I am visiting her for a second time at her home in March of 2021. She sits on the kitchen floor cross-legged, in a tank top and flowery maxi skirt, picking out stems of herbs. She’s making lamb curry with herbed pilaf for her colleagues. Washing blood and goo from glossy pink pieces of lamb shank, she points to the bag it came in, which includes some chicken and shrimp. “One and a half million tomans [$50] for this,” she says. “My monthly salary is eight million,” which was worth about $300 at the time. Her father, a developer, is able to supplement her income; and yet. Her alert black eyes flash kindness and anger at once.
Karimi has been working for twelve years. When she started, her colleagues were middle-class people, she says, with “decent” material well-being. It was in more recent years, “even before the pandemic,” she tells me, that things began to change. When I ask her to explain what they’ve experienced on the job, she mentions shortages — not only of medicine but of IV fluid and heparin locks, of hospital equipment that breaks down, of salaries that arrive late.
Karimi says that “in the last few years” her colleagues have been taking home hospital meals, provided to them on shifts for free, because of tightening food budgets. They moved farther south or west of Tehran, the only places where they could afford rent, and commuted three to four hours a day. She reiterates what I have heard from other nurses; she has seen her colleagues “get poorer and poorer.” When she recounts the timeline, it follows the one described by Alizadeh: the worst began in 2018.
The same socioeconomic descent was taking place in the lives of teachers, park janitors, and taxi drivers. But hospital workers then faced more extreme exposure to COVID. “We watched people die in scores in front of our eyes,” Karimi says. She lost her brother as well as several close colleagues.
Now, she says, nurses are “fleeing” — immigrating. COVID has made them highly sought after by the Global North and Persian Gulf countries. She mentions a nurse practitioner who works at three hospitals to make ends meet and has burned out under pressure. “It’s gotten to a point where he doesn’t give a damn about who lives and who dies; the dead become just a number.” She says this while describing how meticulously nurses must watch out for every patient in the ICU. “Exhaustion leads to despair and lethargy,” she says. “To get as many people as you can to survive on each shift, you have to fight it.”
Karimi blames both COVID and the ruling class for the difficulties nurses face. “We are being swindled by an oppressive sheriff,” she says. She is speaking of fasad, the corruption of the ruling elite she calls the sheriff, and she points to doctors’ special-interest lobbies, the growing black market for pharmaceuticals, and the jet-setting lifestyle of children of Iranian officials on Instagram.
I wonder if Karimi thinks sanctions impact her work in any way. She tells me that she thinks of the word sanctions as a false flag. “It is a word they use to cover their incompetence.”
In Persian we refer to sanctions by the Arabic word tahrim (to make haram, or forbidden). The economic weekly Tejarat-e-Farda reports that tahrim strengthens the informal economy and increases economic corruption. Bryan Early and Dursun Peksen argue that sanctions contribute to the proliferation of the shadow economy, and Jill Jermano writes that they lead to “endemic state corruption.” When transparency must be eschewed for survival, more of the economy moves underground. Illicit financial activity thrives in the dark. It keeps the economy from total collapse, but it functions as both a lifeline and a sinkhole.
We notice it at both the local level, among those we know, and among the political elite. Coupled with other factors, like inflation and scarcity, once-robust institutions — hospitals, for instance – crumble while the source causing the instability remains contested.
Once, as a country, we knew what to call the force from which we were trying to protect ourselves, when our bodies pressed tightly together in refuge from air raids. This time around, we have no unity in calling out the weapon targeting us. There is a thread of over four hundred comments on Persian-language Twitter about whether medicine shortages are due to tahrim. I met others in the health-care force who, like Sara Karimi, denied that sanctions have anything to do with scarcity. They believe it is not tahrim but “internal corruption” that has led us to where we are today.
Ehsan Mostafavi, an epidemiologist at the Pasteur Institute of Tehran, says some Iranians believe in this internal corruption as the source of all of Iran’s problems because of a “fiction” that humanitarian goods, presumably including medicine, aren’t sanctioned. Those who impose sanctions on Iran, he argues, intentionally diminish the human cost.
The mechanism by which sanctions extract that from the bodies of Iranians remains invisible to most of us, but not to Mostafavi, who learned how the system works in 2020, when he was, he says, “directly involved” in Iran’s attempt to buy flu vaccines. “Banks holding our reserves aren’t willing to release our money,” he says. And if they did, to whom? “Banks won’t take Iran’s money, and pharmaceutical companies aren’t willing to work with us or even answer our emails.” As he speaks, he rotates his index finger in a circle to indicate a loop that can’t be broken. The very purpose of a sanctions regime is to create a pariah state out of a country so that no entity – bank, business or company – is willing to trade with it. This is how, he explains, medicine becomes increasingly scarce and the black market proliferates.
Sanctions rhetoric is by no means consistent about the human suffering that sanctions cause. Even as US presidents intensify the war against us, they declare devotion to the people of Iran. “We continue to stand with the people of Iran in your quest for freedom, prosperity, honest and effective government,” George W. Bush said while decimating our prospect of attaining any of those things. Sanctions aim to hit a space where the enemy-state is weakened but the people of the nation remain unscathed. No such space exists. Sanctions destroy nation-states by simultaneously weakening institutions and inflicting harm on civilians.
There are moments when US officials readily admit that civilians are directly targeted by sanctions. Pompeo has said that he hopes US policy toward Iran will lead Iranians to regime change. “Regime change” must be decoded to mean that Iran’s internal chaos will lead to societal collapse. In sanctions rhetoric, “civil war” is cleaned up as “a people’s uprising.” Nephew, who analyzed how sanctions might best strain our tendons, ligaments, and joints, writes that the US government analyzes national data from Iran to find how “civil unrest or, at a minimum, civil discontent” can be provoked. Elsewhere he notes that he and other sanctions officials instigated inflation and currency crises to “drive up the pressure on the Iranian government from internal sources” and to “pry apart the regime and the population.” The “internal sources” and the “population” to which he refers are Iranians.
The ethics scholar Joy Gordon, who has studied the ramifications of sanctions on both Iran and Iraq, calls sanctions an invisible war — hidden with language that is intentionally “innocuous and vague.” What is hidden is harder to name. The sanctions regime presents itself as less destructive to civilian populations than military onslaught. It is enforced by an economic power that, like its military counterpart, no one will want to enrage. The world obeys and looks away from the human toll.
Even the operatives are unseen. Juan Zarate, former deputy security advisor under George W. Bush, brags that this war is perpetuated by officers of the Treasury, “bureaucratic insurgents — guerrillas in gray suits.” It is a conflict waged by economic policy advisors who intricately know how the global financial system works, and how to cut off a country’s lifelines. Sanctions are backed by the aura of America’s army but are instigated by noncombatants who co-opt the language of economics and law to invoke legitimacy and neutrality. By blurring the lines between wartime and peacetime policy, they can destroy an “enemy” on autopilot, at little cost to their constituents.
But is Iran taking note of the immensity of the weapon that targets it or doing enough to respond? I go to Hanieh Sajjadi, a professor of health policy at the University of Tehran, with that question in March of 2021. Sajjadi is one of few academics focused on sanctions and the health of Iranians. She sits upright in a navy monto and a black cowl. I can make out, above her mask, her ink-black unibrow and thick eyelashes. She speaks like a lecturer trying to convey the urgency of a matter, her voice rising to a pitch every so often. She believes time is running out. In 2019, Sajjadi and her coauthors wrote in the medical journal Lancet that six million Iranians went without necessary medical treatment because of sanctions.
Sanctions don’t just continue over four decades, Sajjadi tells me; they compound. Iran’s postrevolutionary health-care system to Sajjadi is a case in point. Once resoundingly successful at improving public health, Iran today faces rising maternal mortality rates in its poorest provinces, an upshoot in the spread of noncommunicable diseases, and an increasing lack of access to medical care and critical medicine. Inflation inadvertently means less access to public health.
“Is Iran doing enough to resist sanctions?” I ask her again.
When citizens are attacked with military hardware, she says, they rally in solidarity. But sanctions do not provoke the same survival response because the sources remain firmly concealed. They are camouflaged by time and by “absurdist language which claims concern for human life,” says Sajjadi. “Like termites beneath the structure of a house no one can see, they silently and purposefully eat away at the wholeness of a society.”
For years, she says, “that we were untouched by sanctions was a strategy of fighting this war.” During the first two decades of the Revolution, access to public goods — health care, education, electricity, and clean water — improved while Iran was under sanctions. “There was a sense that the blockade could always be overcome,” she says. The sanctions regime intensified, but Iran’s leadership did not take the change seriously. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president from 2005 to 2013, called sanctions “worthless shreds of paper.” Sajjadi calls this “time lost.”
In 2013, Hassan Rouhani, once Iran’s lead negotiator with the West, launched a presidential campaign and won resoundingly on a platform to remove sanctions and the threat of war against Iran. His top diplomat, foreign minister Javad Zarif, negotiated the so-called Iran nuclear deal with the US, the UK, Germany, France, China, and Russia. Iran agreed to limits on its nuclear enrichment program — justification used by the American and European powers to expand their blockade — in exchange for sanctions relief.
Zarif called sanctions not shreds of paper but “economic terrorism.” He gave that tool of war a name and enlisted public health officials and academics to document the ways in which sanctions had hurt the health of Iranians. Sajjadi thinks that Zarif’s diplomatic overture was a major breakthrough in not only minimizing sanctions’ harm but also getting Iranians to pay more attention to their destructive impact. But it wouldn’t be enough.
Iran did not receive the full relief promised to it, and Trump reneged on the deal and reimposed Obama’s sanctions. Then he piled them on. The current American administration calls Trump’s withdrawal “a catastrophic mistake” — while continuing its exact policies. No matter the state of the nuclear deal, the US obsession with Iran as a prime enemy upon which it can easily inflict pain has not ceased.
Today, Iran’s political leadership may be more eager to engage with the West to ease sanctions, but it also has more knowledge about the impossibility of “full sanctions removal,” a claim that Rouhani once made after the deal was signed. Every cog in the sanctions machine — the designation of Iran’s banks and financial institutions, our ability to conduct international transactions and trade, our reserves in various countries, our oil and commodity exports — is gridlocked individually. Sanctions were intentionally designed as a labyrinth too complex to escape.
Sajjadi says a generation of sanctions have already damaged the unborn. Mass suffering — collective punishment — is the essence of every sanctions regime, to an uncertain but certainly deadly end. Iranians will live increasingly more difficult lives as their internal discord grows. Intermittently, threats of military force will build on our sense of annihilation. Our fate will be determined by the counternarrative that we devise — the war story that we tell ourselves. We must respond effectively to a conflict that manifests among us as growing corruption and instability while resisting societal breakdown. “We need to see the war and those it is most hurting,” Sajjadi says. “A war that has left intergenerational repercussions requires intergenerational sacrifice.”
No matter the outcome of talks between Iran and the West, postrevolutionary Iran is now a categorized victim of siege warfare. The “Iran model” is today used by American academics and policymakers as a mock-up summarizing sanctions methodology and its impacts. For this footnote in journal articles and on Twitter, Iranians have paid with their lives.
The writer and editor Kurosh Aliyani believes that Iran can’t push back against this war through diplomacy alone. In this “unrestricted war,” as he calls it, sanctions are just one facet; others are covert ops, efforts at destabilization, a constant threat of war, and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and military commanders. “We need a new language and new metaphors to begin talking about a new kind of warfare — an invisible war,” Aliyani, trained as a linguist, tells me as we sit in an outdoor café in downtown Tehran. Through his snow-gray beard, Aliyani speaks with a monotonous calm but narrows his eyes behind his glasses to express urgency or outrage.
Aliyani says that this war is invisible because those on whom it inflicts pain are unseen — an erasure that works in levels. On the world stage, Iranians are deemed dispensable. A US Secretary of State once said that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children under sanctions were “worth it” — a remark that says all that’s needed about the ways American foreign policy justifies the suffering it inflicts on civilians.
The erasure also operates within. Iran is fighting a battle in which mass suffering is inflicted upon the Iranian people. But the disappointment of those with the privilege to despair — “those with the voice,” as Aliyani calls them — has taken center stage. People who complain about the price of lamb chops, private school, or European vacations. To contrast, he recalls his recent hospitalization, during which he overheard an ill nurse talk about being unable to afford her medication. “While I was admitted, nurses received a bonus, and she was ecstatic” — Aliyani pauses — “that she could pay for medicine. That was her life’s issue. But who’s talking about her?”
Iran today feels like an angrier, more fractured place than the one I was born into. The political establishment appears more incompetent; street violence and poverty have reached the highest levels I’ve ever seen. Nurses, teachers, and the retired sporadically protest late or low pay. There is widespread despair.
If our solidarity has waned, if we can’t see our greatest wounds, I ask Aliyani, doesn’t that signify a deterioration in our morale, without which defeat is certain?
In response he recites a line from a poem: “Siyah lashkar nayayad bekar, yeki mardeh jangi beh az sad hezar” (One good warrior is better than a thousand extras). We have survived thus far; Iran is wounded, but it exists. He refers to wartime commanders who rose among our massive volunteer forces during the Iran-Iraq War and who have been etched into the Iranian imagination as martyred saints. And he concludes with another question: “Do you think Iranians can no longer rise to the occasion?”
In On War, Carl von Clausewitz writes that the ultimate aim of an opponent is to make “one incapable of further resistance.” Defeat is a time and place where resistance to war ceases to exist. I remember the many times when people I spoke to for this story — scientists, doctors, nurses — compared themselves to the heroes of the Iran-Iraq War. They spoke of their willingness to risk their well-being for the collective, which they defined as the people of their vatan, their homeland. We can hope to overcome war when we are still willing to subject our bodies to hardship or even death. So long as Iranians are willing to save Iran, Iran can hope to be saved.
Narjes Khanalizadeh’s village in northern Iran is tucked away under a mushroom of citrus trees near the Caspian Sea. The first time I visit, I see her face on a large poster at the beginning of the road before I find the name of the village. I get out of the car and walk a lush, narrow path, asking directions as I go. The air smells of burned wood and peeled oranges. “Head straight and find the mosque,” an old man on a bicycle tells me. I pass by wooden homes with pyramidal hip roofs covered in dried rice stems. Cusped like a bird’s nest between the mosque and a few houses is a patch of land. There I find the graveyard orchard, and Narjes.
Narjes, who was a nurse, is now known as one of Iran’s first Martyrs to Defend the Path of Health — health-care workers who died fighting COVID-19. Narjes died during a pandemic that killed health-care workers worldwide, but the term martyr invokes heroes of the Iran-Iraq War. She has been placed on the continuum of the first war.
Her mother, Assieh, visits Narjes’s grave every day before sunset to wash the stone, water the flowers, and say a prayer. That’s where she agrees to meet with me. “Narjes lost her sense of smell weeks before her death,” Assieh says. Then came frequent headaches, loss of appetite, and fatigue. “But corona wasn’t yet fully known here, ” she says. Narjes continued going to work, even staying at the hospital when it was snowed in. “She could have taken time off; I’ll never know why she didn’t. In her last weeks, she was driven by an urgency to give care,” says Assieh, wiping tears from her cheeks.
On February 20, 2020, Narjes collapsed in the hospital with a high fever. She died on February 25 at the age of twenty-five. Within a day, photos of her went viral on social media, many of them shared by Assieh. Narjes, with soft brown eyes and pink lips, is seen in the green prairies of her hometown or in a hospital uniform. Her long, wavy locks cascade from beneath her head covering.
Through Iran’s first COVID-19 cases were confirmed a month before, it was Narjes’s death that announced the outbreak of COVID and its threat to health-care workers in Iran. Narjes’s lifeless body was the first to be tested for the virus in her home province, Gilan, and was buried under strict protocols. “It’s all a blur,” Assieh says. “I just remember my father in a hazmat suit digging her grave.” By that time, Assieh herself had COVID and went into isolation for twenty days.
On one visit, Assieh takes me to the graves located inside a closed gate right behind where Narjes is buried. They belong to the ten martyrs of the village — war volunteers and those on military duty, young men who died in battle during the Iran-Iraq War. Four of them are Assieh’s cousins, second cousins, or neighbors. Some of the graves are empty because the bodies never came home. “I never imagined that my daughter would come to lie here as the queen of Iran’s martyrs,” Assieh says, telling me that they all “sacrificed their lives for Iran in wartime.”
On each of my subsequent visits to the village, Narjes’s grave burgeons with new details — one time a curved metal shade, the next a glass gravestone cover, and then green silk ties and military-style identification tags etched with prayers. It has become a pilgrimage site where Iran-Iraq War veterans and groups of health-care workers come to pay their respects. I imagine, in some future time, a tomb erected here.
Iran has survived thus far not only because of the willingness of Iranians to protect her, but also because of a culture that immortalizes them. Every time I get back to Tehran, the Iran-Iraq War veteran who introduced me to Assieh says, “Ziyarat ghabool” (May your pilgrimage be accepted by God). The grave of a martyr is sacred space to be passed on to later generations. In war, death is not an ending but a possibility for our future selves.
*These names are pseudonyms.