Iran Today: Part One, Making Ends Meet
02/06/06 12:00AM By Steve Zind  Download MP3
(Host) Recently, Iran's president has made headlines for his harsh rhetoric and confrontational foreign policy.
But he was elected not because of his antipathy toward the west, which most Iranians don't share, but his promises to improve living standards for the roughly 50% of Iranians who live in poverty
On a recent visit to Iran, VPR's Steve Zind talked with people who hope the president will fulfill those promises.
Today, in Part One of our series, "Iran Today," he examines the economic difficulties facing Iranians.
(Zind) Sometimes it seems everyone in Iran is in business. Take this crowded sidewalk in south Tehran. It's used as much for commerce as conveyance.
(Sound of street salesman)
(Zind) Men are lined up with their wares at their feet: clothing, cassettes, cigarettes, cheap household goods, musical instruments.
(Zind) Young men with gel-slicked hair preen in their reflection in store windows and eye the merchandise inside. They're among the two thirds of Iran's population under thirty-five.
Many are college educated, but they have little to do.
Iran has enormous oil and natural gas resources. But high unemployment and inflation and an economy controlled by the government and powerful religious organizations have resulted in a poverty rate approaching fifty percent.
Even Iran's doctors are struggling.
Doctor Iradj Khosronia is president of the Iranian College of Internal Medicine.
Khosronia says 80% of the country's physicians make less than a living wage. That's about $450.00 a month.
(Translator) "I personally discourage people close to me from getting into medicine, but they don't listen to me and they regret it at the end."
(Zind) There are too many doctors in Iran - and too few patients who can afford to pay for their services.
Khosronia blames a post-revolution boom in medical school graduates and the country's weak economy.
(Translator) "In the past a doctor attended 30 to 40 patients a day in his office. Today because of the excess numbers of physicians, he can't see more than 10 to15 patients. Also, the present economic situation does not allow for increasing the fees. So, a physician's income is always lower compared to other occupations."
(Zind) In spite of the hardships doctors face, Khosronia says there's a general perception in Iran that they make lots of money and spend their leisure time vacationing on the Caspian Sea. He says that old stereotype fuels public resentment toward doctors.
(Translator) "In Iran, a long time ago, say 30-40 years ago, being a doctor meant having a lot of respect from both people and the government. It also meant having a relatively good income. But now medical students see a physician no longer receives the necessary respect, nor gets a good salary."
(Zind) Khosronia hopes President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can help Iran's doctors. That's as much as he'll say about the conservative leader. He's doesn't want to talk politics.
(Zind) It's a different story on the other side of Tehran, at the House of Employment for Women. This is Iran's first women's cooperative - a place where unmarried women with little education learn skills they hope will lift them out of poverty.
(Zind) Here, they're happy to talk about Ahmadinejad.
(Translator) "She's saying one of the women from here who very much, avidly wanted Mr. Ahmadinejad to win was herself."
(Zind) These women feel a kinship with the president who calls himself 'the humble street sweeper of the people".
Some of the women who work here are divorced from addicted husbands.
The manager of the cooperative says drug abuse is widespread in this impoverished part of Tehran.
She says the skills they learn help the women avoid what she calls 'behavioral corruption' - a euphemism for prostitution.
Inside a small room at the co-op women sew hospital gowns and uniforms as the noise from the nearby street pours in through the window on a hot late summer day.
The work earns them just over four dollars a day, which isn't enough to lift them out of poverty, but one woman says she's not concerned about herself.
(Translator) "We want them to create jobs, create occupations for our young people. People my age, for example, can work comfortably in this environment or at home. We have this expectation from Ahmadinejad to eliminate unemployment for our young people. Because unemployment brings a lot of problems, it brings drug addiction; it brings psychological and mental problems."
(Zind) For this woman the president's promise to help the poor is more important than issues like social and political freedoms or Iran's foreign policy.
It won't be easy for Ahmadinejad to deliver on that promise.
University of Tehran professor Abumohammad Askarghani is an informal advisor to the president.
Askharghani believes Ahmadinejad will try to help the poor by using oil revenues to expand a long list of state subsidized items like gasoline and food staples.
(Askharghani) "Without state intervention, the poor cannot benefit. My personal prediction is that there will be some kind of socialist approach to economics."
(Zind) Well over half of Iran's economy is controlled by the government, and by large foundations called bonyads, run by wealthy clerics.
Said Amir Arjomand is the author of "The Turban for the Crown" and a professor at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. Arjomand says any attempt at real economic reform will run head-on into powerful conservative elements that control these institutions.
(Arjomand) "The rhetoric is there, of social justice. But whether or not he can do anything about it is very doubtful. The bonyads, these foundations, they're not going to go away."
(Zind) Even presidential advisor Askarghani says he's pessimistic about Ahmadinejad's chances of fighting corruption and reforming government.
(Askhargani) "There are many blocks of power inside Iran. They have monopolized everything. So, he cannot succeed on that."
(Zind) President Ahmadinejad's confrontational foreign policy and the escalating impasse over Iran's nuclear program have made foreign companies skittish about investing in Iran, further stifling the growth of Iran's economy.
Ali Mazrui is a Tehran journalist who writes about economic issues.
(Mazroei) "You cannot have challenging relations with foreign countries at the same time you want to develop your economy."
(Zind) Iranians are also moving their money out of the country. Ahmadinejad's election contributed to a dramatic slide in the Tehran stock market.
It's still to early in Ahmadinejad term to tell what economic relief he'll be able to deliver. His frequent trips to Iran's provinces and his continued promises to help the poor have bolstered his populist image. So has the fact that he still lives in the modest Tehran home he occupied before the election. Ahmadinejad remains popular among those who continue to stake their hopes on his ability to deliver on his campaign promises.
(Bazaar fiddler plays)
(Zind) In Iran, the faces of poverty and unemployment are visible everywhere.
The gaunt old man in the threadbare coat who plays a fiddle for tips in the bazaar, the retired army general who plows through the congested Tehran streets in his run-down car hoping to make a few dollars a day as a cab driver.
Or the hand written signs on a hospital wall in Tehran. On each is written the words "healthy kidney for sale", along with a blood type, a phone number and the first name of a desperate soul willing to sell an organ to survive.
For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Steve Zind.
Note: Tomorrow, in our Iran Today series, Steve Zind examines the paradoxes of women's lives in Iran.