An Iranian woman crosses an intersection near the Grand Bazaar in Tehran. Citizens are feeling the bite of US sanctions on Iran. Picture: Bloomberg
With the Trump administration reimposing sanctions aimed at cutting off Iran economically from the world, it's the Iranian people who are feeling isolated.

Airfares to foreign destinations favoured by Iranian travellers have tripled in cost, putting a getaway from their crushing economic and political woes out of reach for most.

The sharp rise in the cost of air travel, resulting from restrictions on doing business in dollars, is further adding to the deep disenchantment of many Iranians, who had enjoyed a brief period of optimism following the 2015 nuclear deal. For a time, tourism to regional and European capitals had spiked as Iran began to shed its pariah status.

Now, Iranians are increasingly marooned in a country where the currency is collapsing, food prices have soared, some imported medicines are out of stock and even newsprint has become so hard to come by that some newspapers are scaling back or folding. For many Iranians, it's a familiar but unwelcome feeling: trapped with little hope for a respite abroad.

Economic stagnation, high inflation, and anger over government corruption have fuelled low-level but consistent protests in many of Iran's working-class precincts over the course of this year. But as economic sanctions reimposed two weeks ago take hold, the discontent threatens to spread to Iran's middle and upper classes, as pleasures such as travel fade out of reach.

For most Iranians, travelling to European or regional destinations like Dubai, Istanbul and cities in Iraq has already been an arduous proposition. Iranian passports are among the world's most restricted for obtaining foreign visas.

“That's long been a source of enormous frustration and resentment for people that certainly pre-dates Trump,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said.

But starting in 2012, many countries like Turkey, Georgia, Serbia, Russia and Azerbaijan began easing requirements for Iranians to visit. They joined Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia in offering Iranians visa-free or visa-on-arrival travel - contributing to a sense among Iranians that the isolation of the Islamic Republic was no longer punishing ordinary people.

After the international agreement in 2015 over Iran's nuclear programme, foreign carriers like Air France and KLM began flying to Tehran, bringing foreign tourists to the country and boosting the local economy.

The recent spike in the cost of airfare is once again slamming shut that door to the world. And it comes on top of President Donald Trump's travel ban, which barred Iranian citizens from entering the US. Many are now unable to visit relatives in large Iranian communities in the US; others complain that the stigma of the American ban is also making it harder to gain entry to some European countries.

Now, Sadjadpour said, “the question is ultimately who do people blame for this state? Do they blame America? Do they blame their own leaders? Do they blame economic sanctions?”

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appears keenly aware of the mounting public frustrations, which often attribute Iran's woes to domestic mismanagement and not international pressure. Khamenei echoed that sentiment earlier this month, taking the unusual step of blaming the government of President Hassan Rouhani for the economic crisis.

With the Iranian rial losing more than half its value seemingly overnight, Iranians are increasingly faulting the country's leadership for failing to protect them from the fallout of the economic sanctions, which the Trump administration reimposed after withdrawing from the nuclear deal in May.

“We are in crisis because of the government and people don't trust the government,” said a Tehran resident in his late 30s who requested anonymity for fear of publicly criticising the regime.

Like others, he did not think the growing despair would lead to widespread demonstrations that could destabilise the government and clerical establishment. Instead, he said, the difficulties will only lead to Iran's middle class feeling “imprisoned in the country”. Like others in the country, he had plans to visit Turkey in September but cancelled them when ticket prices soared.

Official figures on Iranian travel are not expected for another few months, but according to industry experts, the impact of the hike in ticket prices has been immediate. Compared with the same period last year, bookings to foreign destinations from Iran have now decreased by half, said Majid Nejad, the founder of one of Iran's largest travel agencies.

Most carriers charge for seats in US dollars, and the sharp decline in the exchange value of the rial has made dollars unaffordable for most Iranians, Nejad said.

Domestic airlines and some foreign ones had charged in rials, but they are no longer able to convert their rials to dollars at a favourable government-subsidised exchange rate.

Last week, Iran's Civil Aviation Organisation said airlines would have to use market rates for foreign exchange. That has been an additional blow to the airlines' economics, contributing to steeper fares.

European airlines like Lufthansa have responded to the dramatic fluctuations in the value of the rial by eliminating the cheapest tickets in their economy cabin, Nejad said.

The forecast for relief isn't promising, with a new round of US sanctions targeting Iran's most important export, oil, set to take effect in November.

Nejad said several European airlines appear to be girding for the worst. Air Astana, based in nearby Kazakhstan, has already suspended flights to Iran, and Air France and KLM have signalled they will follow suit next month after reducing flights earlier this year.

Arghavan Dabashi, a travel agent in Turkey, the top destination for Iranians, said bookings have steadily decreased as airfare increased, but most tourists are trying to offset the cost by reserving cheaper hotels and cutting back on VIP services and organised tours.

The rising cost of travel is also putting at risk a treasured rite for millions of Iranians. Next month's Arbaeen religious observance usually sees droves of Iranian pilgrims travel to neighbouring Iraq to worship at Shia Islam's holiest sites in the cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Aware of the financial challenges Iranians face, Iraq's government said it would reduce visa costs for Iranian pilgrims during the holy month of Ashura. But industry insiders say up to 20% of those who had planned to visit will probably stay home.