On The Streets Of Tehran, Searching For Signs Of Economic Improvement
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It won't be easy for a nuclear agreement to open up Iran, even though supporters in both Iran and the U.S. are hoping to ease the Islamic Republic's decades-long isolation. The deal ended many economic sanctions a few weeks ago.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
But signs of just how hard it will be are appearing on the streets of Tehran. MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep has been exploring that sprawling city from the bottom to the top.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: One thing to realize about Iran's capital is that it is stratified. It's stratified with different layers economically and also geographically. Tehran is built on the side of a mountain range. It begins very low in the desert. It moves up and up the sides of mountains towards snowcapped mountain peaks. And the higher you go, generally speaking, the wealthier you are. We're tracking that path by riding Tehran's metro, a line that begins at the bottom and heads up towards the top. We descended the stairs beneath a portrait of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and we waited for an arriving underground train. A Chinese company built the trains despite economic sanctions in recent years. The Islamic Republic added its own touches, like separate sections for women. A sleek and quiet train took us to Shoosh. That's a neighborhood toward the south of Tehran. The area looks down and out, vacant windows, a cinderblock building half-finished, a pineapple seller on the sidewalk. Here's a man pulling a cart by hand with a heavy load. On this street, we saw a young woman in stylish blue. Farzanei Rezaei had just arrived on the subway with her sister and mother. She came here to buy housewares because she's getting married. Is this a good time in Iran to get married?
FARZANEI REZAEI: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: For me, it's the right time.
INSKEEP: "The right time for me," she said, even though they will not be a wealthy couple. She is a preschool teacher. He works in construction. Is the business getting better or worse, his business?
REZAEI: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: "Right now it's not good," she said. She was shopping in this scratchy area because it is a place to buy dishes or furniture cheap.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hello.
INSKEEP: Down the street, we walked into a dim little shop. Piles of rubber, cloth and vinyl lay next to a single sewing machine.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE)
INSKEEP: Mohammad Shabinian makes covers for vehicles and appliances. Unfortunately for him, those are just the big-ticket items that Iranian consumers are not buying. How's business?
MOHAMMAD SHABINIAN: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).
SHABINIAN: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: It's almost the actual year that's been kind of recession we're facing.
INSKEEP: People are spending less, not knowing where the economy is heading. Iran's currency, which collapsed several years ago, has remained mysteriously depressed even after the nuclear deal. Maybe that explains why there's little jubilation, even at more prosperous stops up the rail line. I'm just walking up the stairs into the neighborhood. The way people dress seems different, bit more expensive. We emerged on a street where women's clothes were for sale in brightly lit windows. It's a neighborhood of office buildings and of coffee shops where people linger after work. In one shop, two women told us their modest ambitions. They both work as accountants but are looking for something better. They've started network marketing, selling cosmetics to their friends. They did follow the nuclear deal and its aftermath. They noticed President Rouhani visited Italy, where their cosmetics come from, but they can't see what it really means for them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: The metro took us farther north, closing in on the mountains. Taxi drivers lined up at this exit shouting for customers. We were now in a truly upscale district. Silvery office buildings and shopping malls loomed overhead. This resembled what you'd expect of an oil-rich nation. Construction cranes have risen over north Tehran even during the worst periods of economic sanctions. Yet the wealth has not extended to four people in their 20s we found lounging on a bench.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Yes, buildings are luxurious around here but not the people. The attitude, the culture is lost.
INSKEEP: This man in his 20s did not give his name for reasons that will become apparent. He said his family used to live in this prosperous district. And how about now?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Nope, I bankrupt for seven years, and right now I live very, very south from here.
INSKEEP: He's just back in the area visiting friends. You said you were bankrupt for seven years.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Yes.
INSKEEP: What happened?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: You really - you want the real answer, or should I soften it up for you?
INSKEEP: I've come thousands of miles. Give me the real answer.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Yes, governments pushed my dad over to bankruptcy by giving him some very hard contracts. So he will actually give up his company.
INSKEEP: He explained that his father's company installed natural gas tanks in filling stations. He blames the government for failing to pay the company enough and then taking it over. Now this is interesting because in English, there's a phrase that everything goes downhill when things are getting bad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Of course. That's true.
INSKEEP: And in your case, when things went bad, they literally went downhill.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Yes, completely.
INSKEEP: Though we couldn't verify this story, it matches what many Iranians and analysts believe about Iran's economy. Powerful government groups control much business. Those with connections climb the mountain. Those without are muscled back down. Economists say corruption may reduce Western enthusiasm for investing in Iran. The young adults on this bench talked less of a bright future than they did of getting out.
PARISA MAHMOODI: I don't think that the country is a good one because, you know, we are not free in this country. And most of my friends are going out to U.S. or Canada or European countries. Me myself, I don't want to be here.
INSKEEP: This remark by Parisa Mahmoodi started a debate with one of her friends.
ARAM SAFARY: Actually, I'm against them. I think we should stay. We should fight for it.
INSKEEP: Aram Safary was the only member of this group who had a job. She works for a company that makes product labels.
SAFARY: I think things are getting better. Actually, my priorities are different from my friends, but...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Not really.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You are the one who wanted to go last year.
SAFARY: I wanted to go some months ago, but it wasn't just because that I don't think that this country isn't a good place to live. I think things are getting better.
INSKEEP: The young people we met at the end of our journey along a Tehran metro line faced a question. It's whether to keep trying to climb uphill or pack up and fly away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.