New Internationalist

Bling, Iranian-style

December 2007

Nasrin Alavi returns to Tehran to take the temperature of a country under threat.

Until a decade ago one could easily pick up a second-hand Cartier or Rolex watch from the many jewellery shops scattered around Tehran. Pawned by the newly insolvent gentry, the sight was reminiscent of pre-revolution days when, for some, a Rolex watch was a standard gift you gave to a son-in-law at your daughter’s wedding, and when Cartier’s only official agent in the Middle East was not in Jeddah or Dubai but in Tehran’s Mirdamad Avenue. In those days French designers like Charles Jordan had a chain of shops running the breadth of north Tehran and cake shops employed top French patissiers to teach their Iranian staff the skills of the trade.

Present-day Tehran’s not quite there yet. But there is a Canadian chef at Bistango in Valiasr Avenue, there’s a big new Benetton at the corner of Farmanieh, and you can stumble on most top designer labels in the overpriced boutiques. Persian antiques are being sent back from Europe into Iran because dealers can demand higher prices for them here. And significantly, after many years of absence, the new bling bling Rolexes are back in the jewellery shop windows.

Two years ago Mr Saeedi, a respected Persian patriarch and a colonel during the pre-revolutionary reign of the Shah, decided to demolish his typical one-storey villa in north Tehran’s Pasdaran area – worth about $800,000 at the time – and build an apartment block. He would accommodate himself and his two married daughters who, like most young working professionals, had been priced out of the housing market, and either sell off or rent the rest of the apartments for additional earnings. Today his 10 new apartments – at $3,500 per square metre – are worth well over a million dollars apiece. 

With prices for new builds on average starting at $1,200 and rising to $8,000 per square metre, there are soaring returns for the rich. The three months to August 2007 saw an 81-per-cent rise in the number of planning permissions issued for new builds in the capital.

There is a massive gap between those who own property and others – such as a schoolteacher on a salary of $300 a month – who have been priced out of the market. Recent Government figures show that the percentage of the population living below the poverty line in OPEC’s second-largest oil producing country has nearly doubled in the last 15 years to more than 13 per cent. Yet for those who are reaping the short-term benefits, there seems nothing more remote than UN sanctions or war.

What sanctions, what war?

I am amongst a group of young women at a bustling Tehran restaurant who are celebrating their university graduations. These girls are the sort of young people that writers (myself included) often enthuse about: the educated, burgeoning children of the Iranian Revolution, with enlightened ideals, at odds with their hardline politicians. Yet these students don’t appear to be fully conscious of the outstanding UN sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme. ‘We’ve been too busy cramming for exams, I can’t even remember the last time I read a newspaper,’ is one typical response. Still, even if she had picked up a newspaper, she would have had to read between the lines to decipher such news. Iran’s National Security Council has for some time banned any negative reporting of outside pressure over its nuclear programme. This uninformed, passive, politically disengaged outlook is rather typical of most Iranians I have talked to in recent months, rich or poor.  

Yet like most Iranians these young women openly grumble about the rules and regulations; the lack of jobs, inflation, poverty and corruption. They mock Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and unashamedly breach the strict guidelines by wearing their compulsory headscarves way back over their head to reveal as much (illicit) hair as possible. This is especially daring as Iran has endured an intensive summer crusade to banish widespread violation of the Islamic dress codes that has seen many cautioned and arrested. Shadi proudly shows off a personally compiled list of all the major shopping centres and thoroughfares in Tehran on her possible daily route where police cars and vans are positioned. Her approach is to avoid going through these areas. The salient mood here seems to be to outmanoeuvre and circumvent rather than face confrontation. 

The future of Iran will more likely be determined by its fluid internal realities than by any external pressure that the West can offer

For example, I had witnessed the judicial ban and the noiseless disappearance of Iran’s leading reformist newspaper Shargh from the shelves. In stark contrast, the closure of the reformist newspaper Salam in July 1999 had triggered the worst nationwide student unrest since the Iranian Revolution. 

Sima, who has been a lecturer at a Tehran university for nearly two decades, tells me: ‘The students are as discontented as they ever were. But in 1999 many felt that they could lawfully and assertively protest against the closure of Salam. The paper had been going for nearly a decade; it was headed by a cleric, Abdollah Nouri, who at that stage was one of President Khatami’s closest allies… But today there are no factions in power that the students can align with… so with the exception of a few lonely, brave activists, most students in turn feel powerless, isolated and vulnerable.’

Emadeddin Baghi, one of Iran’s most prominent Islamic reformists and the head of the ‘Society to Defend the Rights of Prisoners’ wrote in an open letter in September of the ‘tragic silence of the élite, political parties, and civil institutions’ as well as ‘the acquiescence of public opinion’ in relation to the ‘recent wave of executions in Iran’ that has included 41 people in the last month alone.

The Great Satan

Such acquiescence and political apathy appears to run deep. My attempt to impart the gist of President George Bush’s most recent fiery utterances – that Iran must be confronted ‘before it is too late’ – is met by a few polite, blank stares and shrugs by members of my own extended family. Only one person takes the trouble to respond: ‘Oh, so what. Bush sounds just like another Ahmadinejad. Anyway, there’s been nothing but this sort of talk from both sides since the Revolution, and what’s the point of discussing what we can’t control?’ 

Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East where people don’t attribute their hardships to US-backed rulers. After visiting Iran in May 2004, the New York Times columnist Nicholas D Kristof declared: ‘Finally, I’ve found a pro-American country.’

The spontaneous candlelight vigils in Tehran in sympathy for the victims of 9/11 may have been unique in the region. Yet the bloody aftermath of two US-led wars in neighbouring Afghanistan and Iraq seems to have increased wariness towards Bush’s America.

The average Iranian was unlikely ever to have felt sympathy for Saddam or the extremist Taliban; Iranians endured a long, grim eight-year war against a Saddam-led Iraq and heard the first-person horror stories of 600,000 Iraqis and 1.4 million Afghans that escaped to Iran from these regimes.

Hassan, a Tehran architect who manages a major construction project, tells me that most of the Afghan building workers repatriated from his site by force in May 2007 had sneaked back into Iran and were back at work by September. With many Iraqi and Afghan refugees refusing to leave and many more seeking refuge, it is an inescapable fact to most ordinary Iranians that these refugees prefer the relative safety of clerical rule to Iraq or Afghanistan as ‘liberated’ by the US.

UN sanctions: way off target 

Notwithstanding this, there is widespread and growing resentment of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The country has been beset with rising unemployment and surging inflation that is felt most severely by the poor. In October 2006, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei admonished his cabinet to ‘try to ease this problem’. There is a huge budget deficit and Ahmadinejad’s extravagant, inflationary handouts have contributed to a vast money supply that most investors have ploughed exclusively into foreign imports and the housing market at the expense of other sectors.

Ahmadinejad tapped into a rich vein of popular anger at corruption and cronyism during his election campaign, promising to thwart a ‘mafia’ that was dominating the oil industry. Yet what has transpired since is a battle for the domination of Iran’s most powerful institutions.  

The Revolutionary Guards, like other wings of the armed forces, are barred from political activity by the Iranian constitution and were specifically prohibited by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Yet through their old comrade Ahmadinejad they now occupy several cabinet posts and have been granted control of most upcoming oil contracts, including South Pars, Iran’s largest energy project. The President’s isolationist policies have also provided an ideal milieu for the tight state control that guarantees their survival.  When Ahmadinejad said that the UN resolution passed against Iran was a mere ineffective ‘piece of paper’, he may well have meant it. 

The new sanctions announced on 25 October by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will certainly be damaging for Iran’s long-term economic welfare. But they had the short-term effect of pushing up oil prices to a record high of over $90 a barrel, thereby putting more money in the hands of the regime.

Nevertheless, there are others at the helm inside Iran who may not share Ahmadinejad’s bullish philosophy. The powerful Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who has been openly at loggerheads with the President, told a gathering of clerics in December 2006 not to over-emphasize America’s woes in the region: ‘Iran’s nuclear file is still dangerous,’ he said, and ‘it cannot be solved with slogans’. Rafsanjani was recently elected to lead the Assembly of Experts, the powerful clerical body responsible for supervising Iran’s Supreme Leader. This election by his peers is an indication of the ruling clerics’ displeasure with Ahmadinejad’s economic policies at home and aggressive policies abroad.

The most progressive Iranian reformists have long sought a broader reintegration of Iran into the world economy. This would reduce state domination of an economy (supported by huge oil reserves) that is crippled by corruption and negligence, and loosen the control of social and political life by state institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards and their allies. In this view, there is a direct link between a more engaged foreign policy and more liberal economic policy on one side, and the empowerment of civil society on the other. 

In June, a group of 60 leading Iranian economists, in an open letter to Ahmadinejad, criticized the Government’s intensifying state intervention in business and inflationary spending and argued that his foreign policy ‘had not been productive’. In September Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was faced with a barrage of criticism at Tehran’s Chamber of Commerce; he was told that ‘Economic expansion cannot happen without a foreign policy and international relations’.  

The economic noose is said to be tightening around the Iranian regime as the US and European governments pursue a third round of UN sanctions against Iran’s nuclear activities. Yet in reality the future of Iran will more likely be determined by its fluid internal realities than by any external pressure that the West can offer.

Iran has experienced nothing but conflict and isolation since the beginning of the Revolution; more conflict and isolation in the shape of sanctions and sabre-rattling will only offer sustenance to the very forces they are designed to oppose.

Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran (Portobello 2006).

This column was published in the December 2007 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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