In Peace, Economic Strivers Question Their Government

The Iranian government’s recent inability to meet the rising expectations of its people has led many Iranians to question the power of their leaders. We met many Iranians who were taking on extra jobs to maintain their standard of living. “All they give us is slogans,” said a 67-year-old former naval officer who now works as a mechanical engineer and also drives a Tehran taxi to make ends meet. “Talk about Palestinians and Hezbollah won’t help me buy milk for my grandchildren!”

The wages of even professional jobs are untenably low. We were told that an engineer or a college professor would have difficulty buying a home or sending children to a university. A female journalist in her early thirties reported that when a local bakery shut down for renovations during last summer’s battles between Israel and Hezbollah, her neighbors immediately concluded that the Iranian government had sent all the country’s flour to Lebanon. The economic aspirations of Iranians could be an important engine for greater integration with the international community. Alternatively, threats like U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf or broad sanctions affecting the Iranian people could result in an entrenchment of hardliners and Iran’s closing itself off from the West.

Two-thirds of all Iranians are 35 years old and younger, according to the UN Population Division, and the entry of young people into the labor force has outstripped job creation by about 200,000 people per year, according to the World Bank. In September 2006, the World Bank reported unemployment in Iran at 11.5 percent overall and 23.2 percent among young people, compared with 10.9 and 22.4 percent, respectively, six months earlier. Young men and women we met complained that Iran’s economy is decrepit, that unemployment is rising, and that wages for nonprofessional jobs like driving buses and taxis are unbearably low. They blame the government for mismanaging the economy. “The government is everywhere,” they say. “All of us are working with the government in some way or another because it’s so big that it permeates all of life. You can’t get away from it.”

Compounding the problem, Iran’s constitutional prohibition of foreign ownership has caused deterioration in its petroleum infrastructure because it forbids the sharing of oil resources with foreign refinery developers and Iran lacks the capital, technology, and management to build them on its own. “Why are we importing gasoline when we are a major oil-producing nation?” one professional job-seeker asked us rhetorically. Several young entrepreneurs argued that foreign direct investment could bring new opportunities for employment. A small business owner in Shiraz complained that even though the government, which has controlled 80 percent of employment in the past, has slowly begun to privatize, his own chances of making it are hampered by Iran’s isolated status in the world. An entrepreneur named Sami who sells airtime to calling-card companies said that his business suffered because of negative views of Iran among his international clients.

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