11/29/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

New Book Chronicles the Travails of Ordinary Iranians


Sometimes overlooked in the long-running debate over Iran's nuclear program is the deteriorating situation of ordinary people contending with sanctions, other economic pressures and the daily indignities of living in the Islamic Republic.

The Iranian Chronicles, by a young Iranian Canadian law student, Ali Delforoush, tries to rectify this lapse by presenting profiles of Iranians attempting to navigate a system in which it is increasingly difficult to earn a living while keeping honor and sanity intact.

The stories are both sad and riveting.

Delforoush, whose family left Iran in 1982 when he was 12, returned for a month in 2008 and did initial research. Over the next few years, he added interviews conducted by phone, email and Skype. From 420 interviews, he distilled eight profiles. The subjects are sometimes composites of more than one individual but the details of the calamities that befell them are all true, Delforoush said in an interview.

"I'm trying to humanize Iranians through this book," he said, to show "real people with real problems."

The problems are familiar to anyone who has spent time in Iran.

There is a hip-hop artist who is arrested for playing underground music and whose hand is broken by the morals police. Threatened with arrest a second time -- which would cause his family to forfeit bail and lose their home which was put up as collateral -- he gives up his dreams of being a musician and joins the family carpet business.

A young woman from the provinces is cast out by her father when she loses her virginity to a local boy. She flees to Tehran, is jilted by the boyfriend and becomes a prostitute who is later arrested, forced to be a "temporary" wife and trafficked to Dubai by the corrupt cleric who presided at her trial.

A government worker loses his job at the state television station because he is insufficiently hardline politically and not sycophantic to his boss. He struggles to make ends meet by using his car as a taxi -- a sideline common to thousands in Tehran -- and delivering boot-legged DVDs to upper class Iranians.

The most poignant story involves a young mechanic in poor south Tehran who goes to work at age 15 after his father dies of a drug overdose. The son winds up succumbing to heroin addiction himself after making Herculean efforts to support his widowed mother and three younger siblings.

Although the subject matter is bleak, there are also positive aspects as Iranians help each other cope with adversity. The mechanic's boss, for example, locks the young man in a room so he can go cold turkey and get off drugs. Then the boss lends him money to pay the medical bills of his mother, who is ill with cancer. Other neighbors and friends also chip in.

The prostitute, finally escaping sexual slavery in Dubai, meets an elderly Iranian man on the plane ride home whose daughter, a lawyer in Tehran, gives her an honest job as a secretary.

"Our people have always been good; it's this damn regime that has tainted our morals," the old man tells her.

Delforoush said he wrote the book to increase understanding and sympathy for Iranians and "show the distinction between the Iranian government and the Iranian people" -- a distinction that he says is often not well explained in foreign media. The Iranian government, he said, "is a common thorn in the side of ordinary people."

Like many Iranians in the diaspora, Delforoush said he would like the Obama administration, in its second term, to engage more directly with Iranian citizens and to stress the importance of human rights.

Iranians need "positive reinforcement," Delforoush said. "They don't need militarization. They need hope and dialogue."

Delforoush would also like to see sanctions retooled to relieve pressure on innocent people and to make it harder for human rights abusers to travel or have access to money abroad.

He looks forward to 2013 presidential elections and said he believes that Iranians will demonstrate as they did in 2009 but concedes that leadership for a democracy movement is currently lacking.

"A lot is riding on 2013," Delforoush said. "Things are getting to a boiling point."

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where she focuses on Iran.