Unrest over economic hardships: How ordinary Iranians are coping

  • Focus
  • Sunday, 15 Dec 2019

Government supporters during a rally in Teheran on Nov 25 to condemn days of “rioting” that Iran blames on its foreign foes. Iran had raised the price of petrol last month, triggering nationwide protests.- AFP

THE ancient city of Shiraz in Iran’s Fars province, famed for its literary history and gardens, draws poetry-loving Iranians to the mausoleums of revered mediaeval poets Hafiz and Sa’adi.

But recently, this historic seat of Persian civilisation has been convulsed by protests after the authorities raised prices of petrol by up to 50%.

The minimum price for petrol has gone from 10,000 rials (RM0.97) per litre to 15,000 rials. After a monthly quota of 60 litres, prices go up to 30,000 rials.

This has only added to the cost of living, which has skyrocketed after the US reimposed economic sanctions on the country last year.

A five-day Internet blackout has made it difficult to say for certain how many casualties the protests have claimed in this city of 1.5 million but photographs show protesters carrying away an injured man. In one video clip, hundreds of protesters on foot can be seen chanting and advancing on security forces amid plumes of smoke.

At least 161 people have been killed in the unrest, according to Amnesty International, and other media reports put the number at over 180. The Iranian government has disputed these figures but has yet to put out any official statistics.

The spate of protests that have hit Shiraz and more than 100 other towns and cities was the worst political unrest in Iran since the Islamic Revolution, a popular uprising in Iran in 1978-79 that resulted in the toppling of the monarchy. Demands by protesters, according to reports, include the overthrow of the government.

Ordinary Iranians have to work for 50 years to afford both a house and a car, said Khasro Parsa, a head nurse from Shiraz, who was thrilled last year to have finally saved enough to buy one of the cheapest cars in Iran, a Pride, by Iran-based car maker Saipa.

To pay for it, the 32-year-old had held down two jobs, as a nurse and a tour guide, some days putting in more than 12 hours of work.

But then, US President Donald Trump walked out of the nuclear deal, and car prices immediately shot up, along with fuel prices.

Under the nuclear deal with world powers, Iran had agreed to limit its nuclear activities and allow international inspections in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

“I chose the car and brand and had been saving for over a year. When I finally had the money, the cost of the car had doubled, ” said Parsa, who lives with his parents.

He noted that it was not uncommon for people in Iran to have two to three jobs to cover costs, given the beleaguered nation’s 42% annual inflation rate.

Rising costs, which include the prices of essential commodities like rice, have also dented his wedding plans.

“The wedding party costs are so high in Iran. I have a fiancee and every month, I say give me one more month (to set the wedding date), ” he said.

Iran, which has a population of 62.1 million, has seen sanctions in one form or other over the last 40 years. For many years, the country’s nuclear ambitions have been viewed as a threat by the US and other countries even as it has argued that they are for peaceful civilian purposes.

That aside, the economy has also performed poorly because of years of mismanagement and allegations of corruption, leading to nationwide protests at the end of 2017 into the start of last year. Nine protesters died after being detained by the Iranian authorities in what Amnesty International called “suspicious” circumstances.

Sanctions now have only added to economic woes with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who came into power in 2013, admitting early this year that Iran was facing its worst economic challenge in 40 years, though he insisted it was not the government’s fault that the economy was struggling.

The immediate impact of sanctions was the doubling or tripling of food prices. Property and land prices too have shot up.

The government has increased the salaries of its employees by 15 to 25% since the sanctions were imposed a year ago but that has had limited impact.

Shortages in healthcare services have emerged as a key worry. Medicines for more complex diseases such as cancer are not available, and hospitals have problems sourcing equipment.

Though Iran produces 97% of its medicines, it needs to import high-end and specialised drugs. According to Human Rights Watch, a portion of domestically made medicines also require imported components.

People told The Straits Times they were unable to get items like medicated creams.

Ali Dordani, 23, an engineer whose wife works in Singapore, said his 70-year-old grandfather had to travel to neighbouring Iraq to buy medicine when he had a stomach ailment last year.

“It wasn’t available in Iran, ” said Dordani, speaking to The Straits Times in Shiraz.

Doctors also complained that they could not access medical equipment.

“We are sometimes losing lives just because of instruments, ” said Dr Reza Nikandish at the Abu Ali Sina Medical Centre and Organ Transplant, where sourcing for imaging equipment has been a problem.

According to Human Rights Watch, even with humanitarian exemptions, economic sanctions are causing unnecessary suffering to Iranian citizens.

It noted that the “worst affected were Iranians with rare diseases or conditions that require specialised care like people with leukaemia”.

It said: “Though the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanction regime, broad US sanctions against Iranian banks, coupled with aggressive rhetoric from US officials, have drastically constrained Iran’s ability to finance such humanitarian imports.”

Iran has remained defiant towards sanctions imposed by the US to force it back to the negotiating table, resuming low-grade uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow nuclear plant even as it has left room open for negotiations.

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an interview with a delegation of journalists from the Indian Women’s Press Corps in Teheran before petrol prices were hiked and triggered protests, admitted that the Iranian people were facing hardships.

“Our economy suffered from a shock in expectations. That is why within a few months of US sanctions... our currency lost 70% of its value, our inflation was up manifold. It was a psychological shock, ” he said.

Yet life in Iran, a sophisticated and refined society with a deep tradition of literature and poetry, goes on amid the difficulties.

Some even say it has triggered greater self-reliance and innovation.

Malls are filled with shops of local brands, with the occasional European brands like shoe company Geox. But local brands abound, such as Zamzam Cola, a popular alternative to Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which are not available in Iran.

“Of course, we cannot say sanctions have had no affect. We are looking for the answers to these sanctions, meaning we are looking to become self-sufficient in various fields, ” said Vahid Tahami, newsroom director at Iran’s Press TV.

Signs of hardship, nonetheless, are visible. In the heart of Teheran, dust collects at a massive Hyundai showroom, which is empty and locked from outside, since the Korean car maker pulled out of the country last year.

And after the brutal government crackdown on the desperate protests of the last two weeks, Iranians are left wondering what the future holds, with no relief in sight from any quarter.

At Ordou market in Shiraz, carpet seller Hussain Didehrowshan said he used to make hundreds of thousands of dollars selling carpets to US clients. Not any more.

“Now it is nothing, ” he said, adding, “Business is slow, life is fast. Last two years, the market has been very difficult. It’s very bad. But then this is not in our hands.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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