TEHRAN – Amir, a master’s degree student in engineering outside Tehran University, had thought about getting into digital marketing, but was concerned the Iranian government would restrict Instagram because it had other applications. He had considered founding a start-up, but foresaw US sanctions and rampant inflation to block his path.
Whenever he tried to plan it seemed pointless, said Amir, who at first did not want to give his real name. He was afraid of his country, he said, and he wanted to leave after graduation.
âI’m 24 and I can’t imagine my life at 45,â he said. âI cannot imagine a good future for myself or for my country. Every day, I think about leaving. And every day I think about, if I leave my country, what will happen to my family?
It’s life now for many educated city dwellers in Tehran, the capital, who once pushed for the relaxation of social restrictions and the opening up of Iran to the world, and who have seen the 2015 nuclear deal. with the United States as a cause for hope.
But three years ago, President Donald J. Trump reneged on the deal and reimposed tough economic sanctions, leaving these Iranians to feel burnt by the Americans and isolated under a newly elected president at home who is contrary to their rights. values ââ- a hard-line supporter swearing more to challenge the West.
After years of sanctions, mismanagement and a pandemic, it’s easy to put numbers on Iran’s economic woes. Since 2018, many prices have more than doubled, living standards have skyrocketed and poverty has spread, especially among rural Iranians. All but the richest have been reduced.
But there are no statistics on the uncertainty and the increasingly pinched aspirations of middle-class Iranians. Their gloomy mood can be best measured by missed milestones – in the rush to leave the country after graduation, in delayed marriages and falling birth rates.
In conversations around Tehran during a recent visit, the Iranians wavered between faith and despair, hope and practicality, wondering how to make the most of a situation beyond their control.
In Tehran for the day to run errands – he needed a phone, she had government papers – Bardja Ariafar, 19, and Zahra Saberi, 24, were sitting on a bench in Daneshjoo Park, exercising one of the subtle social freedoms the Iranians have carved out for themselves under strict theocracy in recent years. Despite the ban on gender mixing in public, men and women now sit together in the open.
The friends work in Digikala, the Amazon of Iran, sorting goods at a warehouse in Karaj, a suburb now full of former residents of Tehran looking for cheaper rents. Mr Ariafar said he supplemented his income as a computer programmer. Ms Saberi, like many overqualified young Iranians, had not found a job that would allow her to use her degree in Persian literature.
If and when Ms Saberi gets married, she and her family will have to pay their share of everything the couple might need, from appliances to new clothes and a customary mirror and candlestick at a home. The groom’s family will provide a set of gold and diamond jewelry for the wedding.
But after Iran’s currency, the rial, lost around 70% of its value in just a few years, his family could no longer afford it.
The rial plunged from around 43,000 to the dollar in January 2018 to around 277,000 this week, a drop that forced the government last year to introduce a new unit, the toman, to cut bills by four zeros. But everything from rents to clothing prices is based on the dollar, as most of the raw materials are imported, so Iranians spend a lot more of their income for a lot less.
In 2020, the percentage of Iranians living on the equivalent of less than 5.60 dollars a day had risen to 13% from less than 10% ten years ago, according to an analysis by Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economist of Virginia Tech. It was worse in rural areas, where around a quarter of the population lives in poverty, up from 22% in 2019.
Increasingly, the Iranian middle class felt the pressure. Mr. Ariafar’s new smartphone cost him 70% of a month’s salary.
âIt’s difficult to succeed and develop in Iran,â he said, âso maybe it is my only choice, to go abroad.
But for Ms. Saberi, leaving was not an option.
âThis is my home, my land, my culture,â she said. âI can’t imagine leaving him. We must do better, not run away.
In July, Iranian authorities unveiled a solution to Iran’s marriage and childbirth crisis: a state-sanctioned dating app. But for the young Iranians, the authorities would like to start families, the matches may not be the problem.
Standing in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, Zahra slipped on a braided gold and diamond wedding band, the jewelry store’s ceiling lights glistening on her hot pink manicure.
“How much?” she asked, raising her finger to inspect her fiancÃ©.
“We’re going to give a good discount,” replied Milod, 38, the owner.
“Do you have any fake diamonds? “
“No, but I’ll give you a good discount,” he repeated.
– I don’t want real diamonds, she said, removing the ring.
With the price of gold having increased tenfold, according to jewelers’ estimates, in recent years, more and more couples have opted for costume jewelry. Others get married in small rushed ceremonies, while saving to leave. Some postpone marriage until their thirties; others are overpriced.
The next step is also out of reach.
Iran’s fertility rate fell nearly 30% from 2005 to 2020, reaching 1.8 children per woman in 2020, sparking a wave of incentives.
The future parents are disturbed by the possibility of new disturbances, even of war. No one knows if the ultraconservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, will curb the few social freedoms that the Iranians have carved out for themselves, such as the Western music which vibrates in many cafes or the tattoos which snake the arms of young people.
And will the economy ever become strong enough to give a child a good life?
Zahra Negarestan, 35, and Maysam Saleh, 38, were lucky – to a point.
They were married six months before Mr. Trump reimposed the sanctions. Soon after, everything they were supposed to buy before getting married doubled in price.
âIt was bad then,â Ms. Negarestan said. âWe didn’t think it could get any worse.
The couple, who recently started a business selling pottery wheels, said they had both always wanted to have children. Yet they continue to postpone a decision.
âYou can either have a very objective view of things – to have a baby I need insurance, I need a job with that much income,â said Mr. Saleh, who works for one. water treatment company and freelancers in video production. âOr you can base it on faith – once you have a baby, God will provide. But any day, my practicality wins.
Ms. Negarestan has retained a certain optimism.
“Maybe,” she said, “he or she will find a better way to live.”
But if they have a baby and the country deteriorates, she said, they will leave.
Between hope and despair, there is compromise.
For some, it means getting married with fake jewelry and a rental dress. For others, it is contraband.
The wealthy of Tehran can still find Dutch coffee filters and miniature California carrots, at a price, thanks to a cottage industry of small sanction breakers. On the streets of the capital, the latest AirPods are popping out of ears and any traffic jam can include a shiny Range Rover.
When Fatemeh, 39, started working as a computer engineer 17 years ago, she said she was earning enough to save for a house and lead a comfortable life. Three children and a steep economic downturn later, however, she needed to supplement her income.
After the 2018 sanctions, as foreign clothing stores disappeared or raised prices, she saw an opportunity. Soon she was paying Iranians in Turkey to buy goods online and take them home by plane or car.
Three years later, business is going well. Its customers pay a 20% mark-up for foreign brands rather than resigning themselves to Iranian brands.
âIt’s not like with sanctions, you say ‘Goodbye lifestyle, goodbye whatever I wanted’,â she said. “We are trying to find a way around this.”
Yet even after doubling her income, Fatemeh said she was barely keeping pace. Her children’s school is four times what it cost a few years ago, she says, and her grocery bill has quintupled.
With two more years of hard work, she said, she may well catch up with inflation – longer, if things get worse.