As Iran's economy stumbles, tension grows between rich and poor

A woman in Tehran, Iran, drove past a billboard for a Western brand in 2015. Today, even well-heeled Iranians complain about how renewed US economic sanctions are causing economic volatility and rising prices. (Vahid Salem/AP/File)

[Tehran, Iran] There is wealth in Iran.

Decades ago, money here was a well-hidden secret, rarely flaunted, in keeping with the socialist ideals of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

But today? Ferrari, Porsche, and Lamborghini sports cars navigate as best they can through Tehran’s ever-congested traffic, their finely tuned engines designed more for racing along European motorways.

Rich Iranian youth post photographs online of themselves being, well, rich – at parties and poolside, in their cars and mansions, and spending money at shimmering luxury malls.

Into this picture of wealth insert renewed US economic sanctions, first reimposed after President Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal last spring.

Even well-heeled Iranians grouse about how sanctions and economic volatility are raising prices. And yet Botox treatment centers are still packed with clients, for example – even as most ordinary Iranians brace for new medical shortages.

As Iran’s currency has plummeted in value and as prices have soared, hundreds of economic protests have swept across the country this year. Anger over corruption and mismanagement has been exacerbated now by sanctions and the expectation of more hardship.

And in their midst, resentment has grown at the wide gap between Iran’s very rich who flaunt their wealth and the majority of Iranians, whose struggle to get by has become more daunting by the day. Many of the very rich are part of the regime, or are offspring of the well-connected, known by the derogatory term aghazadehs, which means “born to a nobleman.”

That tension is being made worse as Nov. 4 nears, after which new US measures aim to completely sever Iranian oil sales and deprive the Islamic Republic of its primary income.
Parallel universes

And tensions have been made even worse, for some, by the fact that the revolution promised economic “justice” and equality for all Iranians. Back then, even the wealthiest often lived humble lives.

The result is that Iran’s long-simmering social divide increasingly resembles two parallel universes, in which everything from conversations to lifestyles on one side are seen as foreign and unbelievable to the other.

“It’s astonishing the last few years, this desire to show their wealth,” says a veteran observer in Tehran who asked not to be named. “It’s a sickness. It’s a social disease, when there is so much pressure on ordinary people.”

He points to recent violence in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where Iraqis took to the streets and burned cars and buildings to protest electricity and water shortages, and compares it to the added pressure that sanctions are already bringing upon Iranians, and upon their social divide.

“It’s the same here: Things are in short supply, and no hope in sight,” says the observer. “Before there was a socialist mentality in the head of everyone. It was a shame to show your wealth. These aghazadehs, they just want to show they are rich, no matter what.”

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