As a college student studying mechanics, Hamidreza Faraji had expected after graduation to land a steady job with a fixed salary, a pension plan and the occasional bonus. He envisioned coming home at 6pm to his family and vacationing at a resort on the Caspian Sea.
But Faraji (34) has long since given up on all that. These days, he says, the only people who lead such predictable lives are government employees. Their jobs are well paid and offer security, but are hard to get in part because older employees stay on well past retirement age, limiting opportunities for the next generation.
So millions of Iranians, particularly younger ones, find themselves caught like Faraji in a vicious cycle of hidden poverty, an exhausting hustle to stay afloat, working multiple jobs and running moneymaking schemes just to keep up. Iran’s youth unemployment rate is 30 per cent.
“Seeking opportunities, and trying to make the best of them,” Faraji says when asked about how he supported himself and his wife. A baby is on the way – “that just happened” – but they have no idea how they are going to pay for the additional costs with the money he makes as a small-time trader.
To many in the outside world, Iran seems to be riding high, its coffers replenished with billions of dollars it received after reaching a nuclear agreement with foreign powers. International businesses have been swarming into the country, seemingly eager to clinch deals.
The government is throwing its weight around regionally as well, lending political and military support to Shia groups and governments in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen and extending its influence eastward into Afghanistan. In fiery speeches, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, boasts of Iran’s impact.
US president Donald Trump’s administration has expressed deep concerns about Iran’s expanding power, with the secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, saying recently, “Everywhere you look if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran.” But with a presidential election this Friday, many middle-class Iranians see things in a different way. Disillusioned and cynical, they are frustrated by years of high unemployment, inflation that eats relentlessly into living standards and widespread corruption.
Out of touch
And they are frustrated with a state widely regarded as ossified and out of touch, a mixture of a quasi-socialist economy dominated by the military and clergy, and elective institutions supervised by conservative clerical bodies that have the final say on legislation and candidates for political office.
Veterans of the 1979 revolution, like Ayatollah Khamenei, are still in charge, reinforcing a rigid revolutionary ideology and doing their best to resist pressures for change. With no obvious younger generation of leaders, the country also faces a looming succession crisis.
While foreign investors often are said to be intent on doing deals, it is unclear whether they will help start an economic boom. With few exceptions, they are signing memorandums of understanding, not actual contracts. Many are concerned that the Trump administration could penalise big international banks that choose to do business in Iran, if they are deemed to violate non-nuclear US sanctions still in force against the country. Only big banks can provide the large-scale financing needed for the major, job-creating infrastructure projects that Iran desperately needs.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani – who is running for re-election against, among others, Ebrahim Raisi, a favourite of hardliners – had hoped to have made headway on these problems by now. He ran in 2013 promising to reinvigorate the economy by forging the nuclear deal, ending or easing sanctions that cut Iran off from international finance and opening the country to foreign investment and ideas.
He accomplished the nuclear pact, but the economic benefits have been meagre at best. Instead, Iranians, many of them college graduates, are working longer and harder just to make ends meet.
‘We’re moving back’
For Faraji, that means selling honey and saffron to supermarkets and running a cosmetics shop. To survive in a brutally competitive marketplace, he has to keep an eye out for police while he buys smuggled products, pays bribes, intimidates delinquent bill payers and devises schemes to dupe store owners into buying his products.
He counts himself lucky, in some respects. He says he has avoided doing any smuggling himself, or resorting to other illegal activities like selling alcohol or organising mixed weddings, where men and women dance with one another – all common in Iran’s underground economy.
Iran's aging leaders have been forced to give ground, tolerating changes they can no longer prevent. Gone are the days when police officers would raid rooftops to remove illegal satellite dishes
Some afternoons his wife joins him at his shop. Otherwise, they would never see each other. “I go to sleep at 1am and leave the house at 6am,” Faraji says. Most of the time, he tries not to think about why his life has become such a struggle, he says. But in his heart he knows: “Everything has ground to a halt. We’re moving back, rather than forward.”
Still, he explains, he would be voting for Rouhani, saying he would choose “the least-bad candidate to prevent an even worse situation”.
Iran’s ministry of labour counts every Iranian who works at least one hour a week as employed. There is no welfare for the long-term unemployed, but laid-off workers get some unemployment insurance. By the official figures, which economists say understate the problem, eight million Iranians are jobless, and only half of Iran’s educated women ever find a job.
At the same time, the government, seeking to provide some sort of safety net in hard economic times, is running fat: it employs about 8.5 million people, out of a national population of just 80 million. But those highly sought-after jobs are difficult for younger Iranians to even hope for.
Change, in fits and starts
Not everyone is so jaded. Many in Iran’s moderate and reformist faction are guardedly optimistic that the country is changing, albeit in fits and starts, and always subject to reversals by hardliners. One of those optimists, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a former cleric and son of a famous ayatollah, now wears a suit as a member of parliament and takes to Twitter as he investigates corruption among the ruling elite.
In the parliamentary elections of 2015, reformists and moderates gained a small majority, which they have used to attack problems like corruption that discourage economic initiatives. Sadeghi and other reformists note that, largely under the radar, Iran has changed a great deal over the years, in some ways resembling many western societies. After roughly 20 years of the internet, satellite television and affordable foreign travel, Iranians have grown more sophisticated, educated and moderate, and less pious.
Iran’s aging leaders have been forced to give ground, tolerating changes they can no longer prevent. Gone are the days when police officers would raid rooftops to remove illegal satellite dishes. Most Iranians can now watch more than 150 foreign-based Persian language channels, while state television, heavily salted with lectures by conservative clerics, is increasingly ignored.
“We are successful in bringing change, as otherwise I would not be sitting in parliament,” Sadeghi says, referring to his status as a corruption fighter. In November, Sadeghi gave a speech in parliament accusing the head of the judiciary, Sadegh Amoli-Larijani, of maintaining a secret bank account to collect diverted public funds. After the speech, representatives of the judiciary tried to arrest him, but were stopped when dozens of people gathered in front of his house to protect him.
Nevertheless, change for Sadeghi and many within Iran’s establishment means altering existing law, not overhauling Iran’s political system and establishment. And that change is halting. For instance, in 2016, parliament passed a measure that would have made women eligible for top political positions, only to have it blocked by the 12-member Guardian Council – now led by a 90-year-old hardliner, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati – which reviews all new laws to ensure they are properly “Islamic”.
Parliament’s attempts to make it easier for women to obtain a divorce and more difficult for men to take a second wife were similarly rejected by the council, which also vets candidates for elections. This, too, has consequences for the economy, as obscure laws enacted after the revolution in 1979 remain on the books, often used by ideologues or unscrupulous officials to undermine business ventures that in most other countries would be brilliant successes.
Even established businesses that suffered during the years of sanctions are finding it difficult to recapture lost customers. For Bahram Shahriyari (58), the prospect of lifting international sanctions after the nuclear deal was a faint light at the end of what had become a dark tunnel.
Until the sanctions were imposed, he had owned a business providing parts and components for new and used vehicles made by Peugeot-Citroen of France, one of the most prominent foreign brands in the country. At its peak four years ago, his company had 400 employees and exported parts to France.
“But the sanctions and mismanagement of our leaders was neck-breaking,” Shahriyari says. His principal customer, an Iranian state-owned automotive company, Iran Khodro, stopped placing orders because it was having trouble selling cars. Before long, his cheques started bouncing, he said, and he told employees that he could no longer pay their wages.
Peugeot-Citroen has re-entered the market, restarting an existing joint venture but dealing only with Iran Khodro. For Shahriyari, who lost his most valuable employees and customers and still cannot obtain financing, it is far too late. “A contact, an ambassador for Iran, once told me, ‘You have to pay the price for the nuclear advancement of our country,’” he says. “Believe me, I did.”
The six candidates in Friday’s election:
Hassan Rouhani (68)
The incumbent, a moderate cleric with a long career in the political hierarchy, is best known for having negotiated the 2015 agreement with world powers, including the United States, that ended Iran’s global isolation by relaxing economic sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear activities. Rouhani called his 2013 election over conservative rivals a “victory of wisdom, moderation, progress, awareness, commitment and religiosity over extremism and bad behaviour.”
But conservatives have targeted Rouhani for what they regard as his softness toward the United States and tolerance of Western culture. They also have sharply criticised him for what they call his misleading prediction that the nuclear agreement would herald an economic boom in Iran, where joblessness remains pervasive and the economy is the most pressing campaign issue. Still, Rouhani is considered the front-runner.
Ebrahim Raisi (56)
Widely believed to have the backing of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi is known as a hardline cleric who has spent most of his political career as a prosecutor and judicial official, starting at age 20, two years after the revolution. Last year he was appointed by Khamenei as the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, a well-endowed Islamic charity in charge of Imam Reza Shrine, one of the holiest sites in the Shia branch of Islam that prevails in Iran.
Raisi also is a member of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that supervises the work of the supreme leader, and is regarded as a possible successor to Khamenei. Raisi wears a black turban identifying him as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad.
Critics contend that Raisi, with his strict anti-western views, would lead Iran back into isolation like Rouhani’s unpopular predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rights advocates say he was among the judicial authorities responsible for mass executions of leftists and dissidents during political turmoil in 1988, when roughly 4,500 people were believed to have been killed. Raisi is not known to have spoken in the campaign about that era.
Eshaq Jahangiri (60)
Rouhani’s vice-president, Jahangiri is a reformist who joined the race in a politically strategic move to help Rouhani counter their conservative critics and defend the nuclear accord, which many Iranians regard as an exemplary achievement even if it has yet to yield major economic benefits. He is widely expected to drop out and endorse Rouhani. “Our government has started along a good path – the nuclear issue was settled, we have stabilised the economy, hope has returned,” Jahangiri said in a recent interview with Agence France-Presse. “I am confident Iranians will vote for this government to continue its work.”
Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf (55)
Like Ahmadinejad, Qalibaf established his political trajectory as Tehran’s mayor. A onetime airline pilot who still has his flying licence, he boasts of his hardline credentials as a former Revolutionary Guard commander and police chief, and has resisted calls by other conservatives to step aside and endorse Raisi.
Qalibaf has assailed Rouhani over a failure to create jobs and has predicted that “an unemployment tsunami will wash away the government.” Rights advocates have accused him of having bragged about crushing protests and beating demonstrators during his police career. Qalibaf also has faced criticism over the collapse of a prominent high-rise building in Tehran in January that killed at least 20 firefighters.
Mostafa Agha Mirsalim (69)
An engineer and former minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Mirsalim was an adviser to Khamenei when he was president in the 1980s. He is considered a pious hardliner known for closing reformist newspapers and denouncing what he considers a western cultural onslaught subverting Iran’s youth.
Mostafa Hashemi-Taba (70)
A former top official of Iran’s physical education organisation and national Olympic committee, Hashemi-Taba is closely associated with Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president who preceded Ahmadinejad. He has been a strong defender of the nuclear accord and may drop out to support Rouhani.
Hashemi-Taba has been outspoken in his ridicule of hardline conservatives over what he calls their denial of the destructive effects of nuclear sanctions during Ahmadinejad’s tenure. “These were the ones who buried their heads in the sand and said sanctions had no impact,” he said. “They emptied the treasury.”
– (New York Times service)