The Oscar buzz surrounding Argo has reached a fevered pitch in recent weeks, with a number of entertainment pundits opining that Ben Affleck's film is well positioned to grab the award for Best Picture. While the tried-and-true "handsome American man saves the world" plot of the film has generally gone over well with critics and audiences alike, Argo has also been criticized for its historical inaccuracies and distortions, itsdemonization of the Iranian people, and its essentially propagandistic nature. But I want to invite us to revisit Argo within the current context of U.S.-Iranian relations -- specifically the sanctions regime which the United States and its allies have imposed on average Iranians.
A number of reviewers have praised Argo for opening with a historical montage that references the 1953 CIA coup against Iran's democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. While that inclusion is laudable, Affleck's sensitivity to the historical context in which Iranians were operating in 1980 pretty much ends after the film's opening minutes. The anger toward the U.S. government that led students to take over the embassy -- and which seems to pervade Iranian society in the film -- is inchoate and unarticulated. While there is a fair amount of spoken Farsi in Argo, very little of it is translated (ironically the longest stretch of subtitles comes when one of the Americans speaks the language). There is an absence of Iranian voices, and thus the viewer has little sense of the deep historical wounds that led directly to the hostage crisis.
This absence of Iranian voices in Argo is mirrored in the real world of 2013 as a different wound is growing in Iran -- a wound about which most Americans hear very little. U.S.-led sanctions against Iran's nuclear program, which at this point have been extended to essentially the entire Iranian economy, have had a devastating effect on average Iranians. To take but one aspect of the overall problem, while the sale of most medicines to Iran has been specifically exempted from the sanctions, in reality virtually all North American and European banks refuse to process any financial transactions with Iranian companies out of fear that they will incur heavy penalties. This has lead to a significant and at times deadly shortage of medicine, a problem compounded by the already skyrocketing rate of inflation caused by the oil embargo.
What kind of a trauma does this situation cause, and why is this pain absent from our collective imagination? We can perhaps accept that Tony Mendez, the CIA agent played by Affleck, would have had little access to the personal stories of those affected by the 1953 coup when he flew to Tehran to pretend to make a movie. But today the stories of average Iranians are available, no thanks to the mainstream media or Hollywood directors, but through artists and activists who are reaching out to make these voices heard. The following are but two anecdotes from Iranians whose lives have been affected by the medicine shortage. They were sent to a performance artist who protested the sanctions at the United Nations last December and published by Sanctioned Life and the anti-war group Havaar: Iranian Initiative Against War, Sanctions and State Repression.
"I have an illness called Fibromyalgia. ... When I don't take the LYRICA pills --because I can't find any -- my entire life is disrupted. I become depressed, sleep during the days, can't go to work, therefore I don't have an income, which intensifies my depression. I can't do anything, I don't have a life, and turn into a parasite. Actually it's not only me, it's all Fibromyalgia patients. [I am] suffering hopelessly from back pain and neck pain. I only wish to die, a few times a day. I believe hell is this very life that I live."
"I am a medical student specializing in gynecology. Upon the implementation of sanctions, in addition to the shortage of anaesthetics in Operation Rooms, there is no access to Misoprostol which is the drug used to stop post child birth or post abortion bleeding. Many patients do not have the ability to pay 2,000,000 IRRs [about $50] for each pill in the black market, so in addition to the fact that many patients will suffer from severe bleeding after giving birth, due to the lack of drugs we are forced to conduct abortion surgeries for many patients in the early months of pregnancy, which has significant impact on their future chances of pregnancy."
This brings us to the exit strategy: How are we to leave this pain? Argo has asked us to trust the intelligence industry to walk us out, the very ones that walked us into it in 1953, but also on numerous other occasions, like the arming of the Taliban, the "discovery" of Saddam's WMD, and the most recent and relevant one to the case of Iran: imposed sanctions in exchange for nuclear compliance, which in a language with more human sensitivity translates into slowly and painfully suffocating an entire people, on a path that has proved ineffective many times over in the past. But, you may ask, what are we to do without our savior Benny, without whom we otherwise incapable, unintelligent, and lost peoples of the world, have only managed to come up with the most beautiful things like art? Well, let us replace the singular personage of the American male who continuously demands and wins our attention in a spirit of indebtedness, with grassroots organizations and communities, made up of difference and plurality, who are fighting in small steps in order to forgo violence.
Perhaps we could start this exodus by signing and circulating a recent petition that voices opposition to the forceful implementation of the conditions of a new hostage crisis -- a crisis that, this time, has taken some 75 million Iranians hostage.
Setareh Danesh is a member of Havaar, a grassroots group of Iranians, Iranian-Americans and allies who have joined together to oppose categorically military action and U.S.-led sanctions against Iran. They stand in solidarity with the Iranian people's struggle against war and sanctions and against Iranian state repression. www.havaar.org/about