Stroll down the painstakingly polished corridors of the Pavilion shopping mall in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, and you’ll undoubtedly brush past crowds of Iranians: the men donning their perennial five o’clock shadows, the women with their excitedly applied make-up. But unlike most of the other Middle Eastern faces around and outside the main entrance on the clogged sidewalks of Jalan Bukit Bintang, the majority of the Persian population isn’t on holiday.
There are over 130,000 Iranians working and studying in Malaysia, according to a source of mine that interviewed Anifah Aman, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In recent years, the Persian community in Malaysia has mushroomed due to relaxed visa regulations and a common bond between the countries for halal food and other Islamic norms. Exiles and opportunists alike have flocked here with grand ambitions in mind, designating Malaysia as their first stepping stone towards more social and economic freedom. However, with the recent round of EU-backed sanctions, effective as of Saturday, March 17, 30 Iranian banks have now been barred from using SWIFT, the international money wire service based in Brussels, tangling opportunities abroad by rerouting remittances for students’ fees and loans into the hands of both illegal and legal money exchangers (depending on the case).
Those shopping in Pavilion now take great care to no longer attempt payments with an Iranian banking card, avoiding any possible awkward dismissal from the cashier. Just across town in trendy Bangsar, an Iranian restauranteur siting in her dining room amongst paint cans and wooden planks in various stages of construction wonders how she will muster up US$100,000 to finish the renovation.
I spent a good month intermittently researching and interviewing people for this story, but in the end was unable to gain any traction. Time has written a very humanistic piece on the Iranian population in Malaysia, but during my research I found some conflicting data and areas that could be developed. Compounded with the experiences of Iranian business owners in Kuala Lumpur, an update about the effects of sanctions on the Persian community in Malaysia should be considered a relevant topic for Westerner readers. The ripples created by the political warheads lobbed at Iran are devastating and humiliating for Persians, and Americans especially should realize just what is being mulled over in the corridors of power when these weapons are used.
But the information chasm will persist. All of the media outlets I write for answered me in a similar, terse fashion: “Sorry, it’s a budget problem.” Sure, that and worries about capturing readership. I understand. Not everyone cares. But nonetheless it is disquieting to run into this wall. Journalism’s pocket money has been on the decline, and budget woes beget greater concerns with appeasing advertisers. But in the end, I may be coming off too idealistic. Who really wants to listen to the tribulations of their “enemy” anyways?
Yet sanctions are only effective at achieving the desired diplomatic pressure about 30 percent of the time. The author of Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, Gary Hufbauer, was recently on NPR’s Planet Money discussing “successful” examples. These countries are small, lack a strong network of secret police and usually devoid of primary natural resources. However, where the political wishes of Western cabinets have been fulfilled, instability tends to take up camp.
In Iran’s situation, and indeed in many other countries, the first thing sanctions succeed in is further entrenching a despotic regime. But when given the choice between war and sanctions, many governments find consensus in applying the latter first — though the situation may disintegrate into war regardless, as was the case with Iraq. Self-righteous governments will continue to ply unruly regimes with sanctions in hope that one day the people will take action or the autocrats themselves have an anomalous epiphany that leads to a detente. In this way, Myanmar is becoming the archetype. Let’s see how long it will last.