The question that preoccupies most of Iran lay coiled in the sullen stare of Abbas Kayhan, 25 years old and stuck behind the counter of his father's corner store. It pulled his heavy brow even lower and traveled down a forearm that shuddered in anger with each word.|
"But what about me?" the young man demanded, smack in the colorless center of a generation whose complaints have driven Iranian politics for more than a decade, with no satisfaction in sight.
"You people, you have got a very good life in the U.S. What is this place?" He glanced down the main street of a town called Shaft, where young men with gelled hair and no jobs sauntered at aimless angles. "Everything is miserable."
While the world focuses on Iran's nuclear ambitions, Iranians focus on the unmet aspirations of the two-thirds of the population that is younger than 30. Nearly three decades after a revolution that swept aside a monarchist system grounded in privilege, the typical Iranian has seen average income shrink under a religious government that has cultivated an elite of its own atop a profoundly dysfunctional economy.
The 80 percent of the population working in the private sector struggles mightily to make a living in the 20 percent of the economy that is not controlled by the government. The end product is a frustration edging into resentment that informs every private conversation with ordinary Iranians and frames every public issue.
It explains the stunning landslide victory 10 months ago of a relative unknown named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the only candidate in the presidential race who campaigned against the rich.
Dissatisfaction also accounts for much of the public support for Iran's nuclear program, despite widespread disdain for the ruling mullahs. In a country where time has seemed to stand still for a quarter-century, the public associates nuclear energy with economic development.
"The city of Shaft is just like anywhere else in the country," said Jafar Shalde, the owner of a housewares shop whose business on a recent morning consisted of one transaction: A woman returned the shelving she'd bought the day before, and Shalde gave her $3 back.
"There is not enough salary for the people," he said. "There is not enough income. They don't have enough money, so they don't buy anything.
"Normally, everything gets worse."
Shaft rests in the low-lying vermillion countryside below the Caspian Sea, its main street of tidy shops curving gently. The surrounding valley is checkered by rice paddies, and families lucky enough to own one eat the harvest themselves. Though economists call the region prosperous compared with most of Iran, residents say they need two jobs to survive. The local string factory, which used to employ 400, now has work for fewer than 100.
"Opium, yes. You can smell it in the evening," Shalde said of the drug many people in Iran -- more than in any other country in the world, according to U.N. figures -- use to fill days not filled by jobs.
At 64, Shalde is old enough to remember Iran's 1979 revolution, defined for Americans by the hostage crisis. Iranians recall it differently.
"It was because of the shah," Shalde said, referring to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose Peacock Throne the CIA restored in a 1953 coup. "There was no equality between classes. There was a gap between people, and our imam said the reason was the shah, and he asked us to demonstrate against him. And this is what we did."
The mullahs took control, but the gap remained, though the government declines to measure income differences.
"In my view, 1 percent may be getting equal to the next 30 percent of the population," said Ali Rashidi, a prominent economist and former Central Bank official. "You can see it."
Iranians say they do. They call a rich man "the son of a cleric," shorthand for the insider government connections crucial to any enterprise here. The richest person in Iran is believed to be Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mid-level cleric who served two terms as president in the 1990s and outspent his opponents in an attempt to return to office last year.
His accession was preempted by Ahmadinejad, who surged ahead on the strength of a half-hour campaign video. Broadcast nationwide in a nightly candidate showcase, the video made no mention of wiping Israel off the map or even nuclear power -- issues that have since defined Ahmadinejad for the outside world.
It simply showed that he lived in a modest house, worked long hours as Tehran's mayor and clearly savored contact with the common folk.
"I saw him on television," said Shalde, in the stillness of his shop. "I didn't vote for his promises. I just looked at him and saw he was just like us. So I told everybody I knew -- for example, my kids -- I told them to vote for him."
That Ahmadinejad even made promises was unusual for a candidate in Iran. He vowed to "put oil money on the sofre ," the dining cloth that in an Iranian household is the equivalent of the kitchen table. Iran's petroleum reserves are the second largest of any OPEC country. And only Russia has more natural gas.
But great chunks of the income from oil already go to keeping public anger at bay. Iran will spend $25 billion this year to hold down the prices of flour, rice, even gasoline. With insufficient refining capacity of its own, Iran imports more gas than any nation except the United States.
"Instability and mental insecurity would result from increasing the price of such products in society," Ahmadinejad said in announcing retention of the subsidies. His first budget also included $19 billion to create the new jobs the economy is failing to generate at the rate young Iranians enter the marketplace, a staggering 1 million a year.
"Work," said Sassan Ataei, 18, "is in Tehran. That's where our peers go."
At 11 on a weekday morning, Ataei was headed down a barren side street toward a teahouse where the unemployed young men of Shaft put their effort into leisure. Everlast, Puma -- it's all about the shoes in the bare, tiled room where young men of working age pass the daylight hours smoking water pipes.
"We only get hopeful when we smoke hashish," said one, smiling as he made do with spiced-apple tobacco. "Otherwise, there's no hope."
The new president has brought a glimmer, however. Mojtaba Dejahang, 23, voted for a reformist candidate but now approves of the hard-line conservative who emphasized economic issues over personal freedoms.
"Bread is important," said Dejahang, who lives with his parents despite holding an engineering degree. "I think ordinary people do love him and trust him, especially with his position on the nuclear issue. He showed that he's a firm person.
"We believe that with nuclear power Iran will actually speed up development."
As he spoke, other young patrons chimed in, drawn by the novelty of a visiting American and the opportunity to be heard.
"I want to make one point clear," Mani Jalili announced, by way of introduction. "If Americans attack the city of Shaft, I will defend it."
Shop owner Ali Korshidi concurred: "If there's going to be any change in this country, it has to come from inside. I put no faith in foreign forces."
Atta Jafarzadeh, 17, wore suede sneakers and an injured look. "We are the generation born after the revolution," he implored. "We have no bad memories of the Americans."
The young men were either on their way to Tehran, 180 miles to the southeast, or had just come back empty-handed. Many of the overcrowded capital's perhaps 10 million residents are economic migrants.
"Unless you have jobs for everyone, democracy will never take root here," said Zirak Shafti, 39, who said his advertising business was faltering. "That's why no government ever succeeded here. It was always dependent on oil. It wanted to control everything."
Inside the airy, neatly arranged home of Fatemeh Jaberoodi, the grown children not at work took seats along the living room wall. Only the oldest has a job -- a bank clerk position inherited from his father. Except for another child in Germany, the entire brood, seven adults, survives on the rice from a small paddy plus Jaberoodi's husband's pension, equal to $77 a month.
The fixed amount shrinks with each uptick of inflation, a chronic condition in Iran that ran at 15 percent last year. Persistent price increases, which economists call a tax on the poor, will be aggravated by Ahmadinejad's budget, according to a wide range of analysts, including fellow conservatives.
Jaberoodi grew wistful recalling the years before 1979, when the Iranian rial held its value year to year. "It seemed that the money we got was just blessed," she said. "There was no inflation.''
Her daughters sat silently. Ameneh, at 30 the eldest, had a computer degree and a good lead on a job with an automaker, but the family lacked the clout "to push the matter through," her mother said.
"If people have got links inside the government, it's easy. For ordinary people, not a chance. There's a lot of talk about justice, but there's not equality of opportunity."
Sajad, the oldest son still at home, stood up. His mother frowned. He is 23. "We don't have enough money to start a business for him," she said. "That's a real problem."
She lowered her voice. "My main concern is that without a job he doesn't become addicted to any of these drugs. My concern is if they can't find a job, this kind of thing is inevitable."
He dressed as she spoke, a fit, handsome man discreetly opening a full-length cupboard door in the living room that becomes a bedroom at night. He pulled off a soccer jersey and buttoned up a dress shirt.
"He got up at 12, had his lunch, watched a bit of television. Now he's going out just to run around with his friends," his mother said. Her face was crossed, like Iran, by currents of knowing and helplessness.
"I can't stop him."