Iranians had been hopeful for economic and political progress in 2015 following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal struck between Iran and the US, the UK, France, China, Russia, Germany and the EU. Then in 2018 the Trump administration re-imposed in full the sanctions on Iran that had been lifted or waivered.
As the news broke that the US president first approved and then pulled back from launching military strikes against Iran on Thursday, one can only imagine how the 81 million people in Iran are feeling. They are now caught between a rock and a hard place.
In November 2018 Brian Hook, US Special Representative for Iran, said, “The President, the Secretary of State, the Vice President, at all levels of the administration, have stood with the Iranian people and their aspirations for a better way of life. The Iranian people want a more representative government, a government that does not rob them blind, that supports their human rights, their economic rights, their freedom of expression, freedom of assembly… ”
But it appears that reading books is not included in what the US considers “freedom of expression.” On June 15th readers in Iran found that their Goodreads accounts had been blocked in compliance with “government sanctions and export control regulations…” (Goodreads was acquired by Amazon in 2013.)
According to Arash Azizi, an Iranian writer, researcher and NYU doctoral candidate based in New York, there are “hundreds of thousands of Iranian books on Goodreads, including translations from and into Persian.”
Danish academic Rasmus Elling at the University of Copenhagen continued the conversation on Twitter, “can we agree that punishing and harassing people for living under an authoritarian rule is really not ok?”
When contacted, an Amazon publicity representative said she would look into it, but did not respond further.
Barbad Golshiri, an Iranian artist whose father was a well-known author and his mother a literary translator, reported that he could no longer access books purchased on Amazon on his Kindle with an Iranian IP. Many Iranians have turned to e-books to get around censorship in their own country, which has banned books by Iranian authors such as Sadegh Hedayat, Shahriar Mandanipour, Marjane Satrapi, or Azar Nafisi. Americans, too, are avid readers of these authors and others, such as Mahbod Seraji or Tehran-born Porochista Khakpour, who grew up in the US.
US sanctions are also affecting printed books as Iran now has trouble importing paper, which drives up the cost for publishing houses.
Two months ago, the Apple app store dropped Fidibobooks, the Iranian equivalent of Amazon/Kindle and the biggest electronic bookstore in Iran. In 2018 Fidibo had offered commuters in the Tehran metro an hour of free e-books.
“As an Iranian writer and researcher, closing down Fidibo was terrible because it was my way of accessing books in Iran,” said Azizi. “This is the opposite of supporting civil society.”
Raheleh Abbasinejad, an Iranian anthropology student based in the UK, wrote, in a thread on Twitter: “When it comes to sanctions, we immediately and fairly think of things like drug and food shortages, overlooking, for example, the excessive restrictions on access to any form of knowledge and its consequences.”
During President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime, ironically, it was the Iranian government that blocked Goodreads briefly. At the time, a Goodreads post read: “Among our 3 million members, we are happy to have 114,031 Iranian members who have added 714,626 books to their shelves. As reported by the Los Angeles Times in 2008, Goodreads has provided an online forum where Iranians participate not only in robust discussions of literature, but also, by natural extension, healthy debates about politics. We have been proud to provide this safe space for honest opinions.”
Now the US government is doing the same thing; the new sanctions mean that American companies that attempt to trade with Iran face immense fines, penalties and jail time. But shouldn’t peaceful cultural exchanges be encouraged rather than forbidden? Earlier cultural exemptions, such as those described in the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act [PDF], referred to “the sharing of information over the Internet in Iran and the support of democracy and human rights in Iran and academic and cultural exchange programs.” Why aren’t Goodreads or Amazon entitled to these same exemptions?
Removing this online forum for the Iranian people only furthers their sense of isolation. As Azizi says, “connectivity is very important. Psychologically you can feel like things have become unlivable because of the isolation.”
As the US stymies the possibility of peaceful international cultural exchange via literature, you have to ask yourself the question, why? As Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi recently tweeted, “The Revolutionary Guards will be really weakened now that Iranians read [fewer] books.”