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What Happened to the Space Monkey? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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For the past three years in Tehran’s Nasir Khusraw Street-where several licensed pharmacies compete to sell medicine-there has been a thriving black market trade in pharmaceuticals. Despite repeated campaigns launched by Iranian health bodies to eliminate this phenomenon, the authorities have begun to turn something of a blind eye towards what is happening, because some of the essential medicines being sold there are no longer available in official outlets due to international sanctions. The company Darou Pakhsh, which is the largest pharmaceutical supplier in Iran (accounting for a third of the market), recently announced it would be halting its production of some medications due to a lack of essential materials and foreign companies refusing to deal with their Iranian counterparts for fear of being fined by the US and European authorities.

This is not the first time that Iran has suffered a shortage of imported pharmaceutical drugs. Over the past three decades the country has repeatedly been subjected to Western and international sanctions. As a result of this, the Iranian market has grown accustomed to making up the shortfall in imports through locally produced alternatives or orientating towards Asian markets where international controls over some trading ports are weaker. This is not to mention the fact that the Iranian regime, through multiple organs, has mastered the art of smuggling and circumventing sanctions by changing names and switching between domestic and foreign brokers. However, there are those who argue that the sanctions this time might prove a defining moment, citing the significant implications that have begun to emerge so far as a direct result of this.

For example, an Iranian parliamentary report revealed that oil revenues have fallen by 45 percent, according to estimates from the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum, while the Iranian rial has lost 80 percent of its value against the US dollar over the past two years. Earlier this month, Air France announced that it had cancelled flights to Tehran, making Lufthansa the only European airline still flying to Iran. It was noticeable in Air France’s statement that the decision was based on economic, not political, considerations, meaning that regardless of the political risk, it is no longer profitable to fly to Tehran.

Of course there are contradictory news reports about the real impact of these sanctions. At a time when economic indicators seem bad, Tehran also appears regionally active. It is no secret that the Iranians are providing the Syrian regime with military supplies, and even contributing financially to its survival. We do not know the exact amount of money President Assad’s regime is receiving from its Iranian allies, but there is no doubt that the Syrian regime no longer possesses significant government revenues given that the civil war has reached its current stage. Furthermore, Tehran claims it is providing Afghanistan with electricity generators, probably in an effort to compensate for the US withdrawal from the troubled country. With regards to minimizing the impact of the sanctions, Iranian officials have boasted that their gas exports to Turkey have not been affected despite Tehran’s position regarding the war in Syria. However are conditions truly that bad? At the Davos forum in Switzerland one can hear two distinct points of view on the matter, the first being that the recent sanctions differ from previous ones, and that by necessity they will force Iran to its knees, despite Tehran’s current arrogance and obstinacy.

Renowned diplomat Henry Kissinger surprised his audience at Davos by confirming that a decision on the Iranian nuclear project will take place in the foreseeable future, which has prompted some to question whether the prominent realist has inside information about a political deal or an imminent war plan.

As for the other point of view, this has been represented by Vali Nasr (author of The Shia Revival). The US academic argues that after six months Iran was able to overcome the sanctions, stressing that Tehran has followed the example of North Korea, in other words joining the nuclear club first and then negotiating to ease sanctions.

A few days ago the Iranian authorities announced that they had successfully managed to send what they referred to as a “living being” into space. State media broadcasted televised footage of a monkey being strapped into place, followed by still images of the rocket and the launch, together with a voiceover from a commentator who said that the experiment was a “cognitive leap” for experts and researchers, adding that Iran could send a man into space by 2020. Meanwhile, US officials criticized Iran for bypassing international law, and the Israelis doubted the success of the mission. On Iranian social networking sites there was a flurry of jokes and comments on the news, with some questioning the mystery behind the officials’ decision to say “living being” instead of “monkey”, while others called for the monkey’s name to be revealed along with his future plans after recording this unprecedented achievement in the history of Iranian space science. Of course, there were also those who questioned the success of the experiment, calling on the authorities to provide evidence that the capsule and “living being” landed safely, or for an interview with the monkey to dispel doubts.

In any case, the timing of the experiment represents an attempt to respond to the issue of sanctions. At a time when Iranians lack medicines for serious and fatal diseases, the authorities can send a monkey into space, or at least a distance of a hundred kilometers, as their experts say.

In his excellent book, “The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran”, Roy Mottahedeh, quoted poet Omar Khayyam: “One thing is certain, that life flies; One thing is certain, and the rest is lies” So let us just assume that the monkey, when travelling into space, was swallowed by a black hole!

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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