The WHO (World Health Organization) has declared the novel coronavirus (covid-19) a global pandemic, and many nations have called for states of emergency. Iran is now the third most affected country after China and Italy and in just a little over a week after the first case was announced, most international borders had suspended travel from Iran. The coronavirus is increasingly becoming a problem that affects the whole world, unveiling both our deep connectedness and mutual reliance. And yet, even amid the spread of a virus that knows no borders, the situation in Iran is laden with political exceptionality. The experience of coronavirus has exposed the doubled condition of quarantine of Iran; the country is being pressurized by the simultaneous spread of the coronavirus and the longstanding sociopolitical and economic quarantine of Iran from the world, which has severely compounded the current pandemic.
Before I left for a trip to Iran in mid-February, there were no known cases of the coronavirus there. But even before the spread of this unprecedented virus, US-Iran tensions had made traveling to Iran difficult for Iranian-Americans. In the weeks before I left for Iran, concerned friends, teachers, and acquaintances asked if I was sure it was the right time to go—or, more assertively, commented that perhaps it was not the right time. I was not sure. This uncertainty was nothing new. I had struggled with similar trepidation over the years amid the changing but constant escalations between Iran and the United States. With increasing state animosities between these governments, travel for Iranians has become difficult (if possible at all), leading to an increasing sense of isolation for Iranians living in Iran.
For Iranian-Americans, there was the risk of becoming a political pawn to both states; each government has approached dual-nationals with suspicion and paranoia, resulting in arrests or discriminatory policies. Four years was the longest time I had spent not visiting my family, friends, and the places that hold my memory and experience. This moment felt loaded with new political tensions--a metastasization of previous patterns. Trump's presidency confirmed for many Iranians what the country's right-wing leadership believed the United States to be: a rogue imperial state that would not adhere to the nuclear deal reached in 2015. The recent escalations, beginning with the US-ordered drone strike that killed General Qasem Soleimani (the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ paramilitary Quds Force) in early 2020, made the threat of war materially and psychically present for Iranians in Iran and abroad. And yet, the sense of arrestedness that had consumed my decision making for some time felt unsustainable. I was deeply affected by the longing for my community in Iran and by the separation between my life in the United States and the difficulty in returning. I decided it was time to go.
A week before I was set to leave, my uncle, who had been sick for some time, went into a coma in Shiraz. I changed my flight to leave as soon as I could. Two days before I arrived, he passed away. Over the years, my uncle had always been the first face awaiting me at the airport; he was always excitedly waving to us from behind the window. This time, when I arrived in Iran, already mourning my uncle, the first face I saw was that of the recently martyred General Soleimani, whose image has been added to the Islamic Republic’s approved pantheon of martyrs and heroes. In the midst of mourning my uncle (a person who, beginning at the age of seventeen, spent five years of his life imprisoned by the Shah's dictatorial regime), I could not help but think that the conditions that had prevented me from getting to Iran in time to say goodbye were tied to the political divisions that have plagued my country of residence and that of my heritage for over forty years. My mourning was not just personal but directly tied to the political conditions that limited my ability to visit Iran and spend time with my uncle in the last four years of his life. The possibility of mourning was itself governed by the barrage of precarious political conditions that both overwhelmed and captured my affective state. And while my dual national status has for the most part facilitated my mobility, in the last four years it had led to a feeling of arrest--one that alienated me from the place I live and maintained a state-imposed distance from the place and people I wished to return to.
A week later, coronavirus was spreading fast in Iran, with its first case located in the religious capital of Qom. Initially the crisis was underplayed by state officials, with President Rouhani going so far as to label it a Western attempt to "cancel Iran" and further damage its economy (Trump also made similar comments early on). This early rhetoric was saturated with the sociopolitical dynamics that have divided Iran and "the West" for some time now, indicating that isolation has been induced both by internal and external politics. These dismissals, which led to early mismanagement, did not last long as it would soon become clear that the virus was permeating the entire country, reaching all of Iran's provinces and infecting several thousands (including several state officials like the vice president and deputy health minister). Shiraz and other vibrant cities across the country became ghost towns. Schools, universities, restaurants, and small businesses all closed. Family members who had not seen each other in years were not able to embrace. Most people were self-quarantining at home. At the outset, President Rouhani stated that "all would be well by Saturday." The aforementioned Saturday passed, and since then the virus only spread further, leaving hospitals overcrowded and medical professionals under-equipped. As I took all of this in from self-quarantine in Shiraz, my return flight was cancelled by Turkish Air, and later the rescheduled flight was cancelled (the morning of our planned departure) by Qatar Airways. When neighboring countries decided to close their borders to Iran, most flights outbound were cancelled. In less than a week, a worry about travelling to Iran transmuted into a worry of how to leave.
Since the 1979 revolution, the United States and Iran have not maintained diplomatic relations. Not knowing what to do but hoping to leave Iran before the situation became worse, I reached out to the American Interests section at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. I told them that my parents and I were three American citizens who live, work, and study in the United States and needed to find a way to return. They wrote back stating: "We fully understand your situation, your difficulties and are following the situation closely. We are in touch with the relevant US, Swiss, and local authorities on this matter." These lines were followed with instructions by the Department of State's travel advisory against travel to Iran, followed by a question: "How will the U.S. assist its citizens wishing to leave Iran?" "Here!" I thought, "this is where they will tell me how they're going to help." Instead, this is what followed:
"The U.S. government has been consistent in recommending its citizens not to travel to Iran. The United States urges those citizens currently in Iran to seriously consider departing by commercial means. While the U.S. government has successfully evacuated hundreds of its citizens in recent weeks, such repatriation flights do not reflect our standard practice and should not be relied on as an option for stranded U.S. citizens."
Twice over, the US interests section repeated that we should not have travelled to Iran in the first place. Surely, this was not the message relayed to American citizens on the coronavirus hit cruise ship in Japan. Policy towards Iran differs, and this is reflected in the treatment of dual-national citizens. I wondered how they understood the "situation" when their instructions reminded us to wash our hands and offered a list of travel agents. The messages I received from the US government via the Swiss embassy essentially read: I told you so. Such lack of commitment in action adds to the feelings of fear and risk for Iranian-American citizens visiting their families, knowing that the US government would not treat them like other citizens.
As I sat in Iran, awaiting an indefinite exit, I thought of the double entanglements of the world's current quarantine of Iran: due at one level to the global spread of the coronavirus, but also at another level to a political and economic sequestration, led by the force of US-imposed economic sanctions, the breaking of the nuclear deal, and continued political neglect on both ends. Dual nationals certainly carry a privileged capacity to move and cross borders, but in recent years the contagion of political tensions has worked to separate families and communities in novel ways, making even experiences of familial mourning wrought with the wound of political trauma and instability.
By now, Iran's state officials have taken steps to address the spread of the virus. Medical professionals are at the frontlines of the fight. But the external pressures of sanctions hover over the country, as Iran comes to terms with the notion that no nation can tackle this problem in isolation. President Rouhani has urged the United States as well as the international community to lift sanctions on Iran amid the pandemic. The global quarantining of Iran continues to have devastating material effects on the lives of those living in Iran; this is abundantly clear as the nation struggles against coronavirus with a lack of basic medical supplies. Sanctions are the number one cause of Iran's limited access to medicine and other basic resources. These pressures are severely compounded during this global health crisis and are felt acutely in the day-to-day lives of Iranian citizens. Iran has lost a number of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals due to a lack of adequate gear to protect them while aiding patients. Just as outbound travel has been suspended, the import of aid coming into Iran is limited, if at all, furthering the sense that even when dealing with a concern that affects the whole world, Iranians are largely on their own.
Beyond these material consequences, there is of course also a psychic cost, primarily for those living in Iran, and secondarily, for members of the diasporic community. Strained US-Iran relations have impacted possibilities for real affective and political community across borders. These longstanding political divisions have not only isolated Iran from the cultural and economic exchanges between other nations, it has also worked to further disconnect members of the diasporic community from unfolding lived realities in Iran. A paranoia on both ends has cut off a sense of hope for connection--diplomatic and personal. US politics towards Iran can be characterized by pressure and isolation, which has undoubtedly permeated the experiences of Iran-Americans whose lives are bound up with their families, memories, and hopes in Iran. These political divisions limit access to personal histories and collective memories while also foreclosing the lived forms of kinship that require both freedom of movement and cultivated care to continue to exist.