2021-09-28 18:26:55 ‘I Can’t Imagine a Good Future’: Young Iranians Increasingly Want Out

‘I Can’t Imagine a Good Future’: Young Iranians Increasingly Want Out

TEHRAN — Amir, a master’s student in engineering standing outside Tehran University, had considered a career in digital marketing but was concerned that Iran’s government would restrict Instagram, as it had other apps. He had considered starting a business, but feared that American sanctions and raging inflation would stand in his way.

Every time he tried to plan something, it seemed pointless, said Amir, who initially refused to reveal his real name. He said he was afraid of his country and planned to leave after graduation.

“I’m 24 years old, and I can’t imagine my life when I’m 45,” he said. “I can’t see a bright future for myself or my country. Every day, I contemplate leaving. And every day, I wonder what will happen to my family if I leave my country.”

This is life now for many educated urbanites in Tehran, the capital, who once advocated for loosening social restrictions and opening Iran to the rest of the world, and who saw the 2015 nuclear deal with the US as reason for optimism.

However, three years ago, President Donald J. Trump violated the agreement and reimposed harsh economic sanctions, leaving these Iranians feeling betrayed by the Americans and isolated at home under a newly elected president who is antithetical to their values — a hardliner vowing further defiance of the West.

After years of sanctions, mismanagement, and the pandemic, it is simple to quantify Iran’s economic difficulties. Many prices have more than doubled since 2018, living standards have plummeted, and poverty has spread, particularly among rural Iranians. Except for the wealthiest, everyone has been brought low.

However, there is no statistic for the insecurity and dwindling aspirations of Iran’s middle class. Their gloomy mood is best reflected in missed milestones, such as the rush to leave the country after graduation, delayed marriages, and declining birthrates.

During a recent visit to Tehran, Iranians oscillated between faith and despair, hope and practicality, wondering how to make the best of a situation beyond their control.

Bardja Ariafar, 19, and Zahra Saberi, 24, were in Tehran for the day to run errands — he needed a phone, she needed government paperwork — and sat on a bench in Daneshjoo Park, exercising one of the subtle social freedoms Iranians have carved out in recent years under the strict theocracy. Despite a public ban on gender mixing, men and women are now sitting together in public.

The friends work at Digikala, Iran’s Amazon, sorting goods in a warehouse in Karaj, a suburb now populated by ex-Tehran residents looking for lower rents. Mr. Ariafar stated that he supplemented his income by working as a computer programmer. Ms. Saberi, like many overqualified young Iranians, had been unable to find work that would allow her to put her Persian literature degree to use.

If and when Ms. Saberi marries, she and her family will be required to pay for their fair share of everything the couple will require, from household appliances, new clothes, and the traditional mirror-and-candlesticks set to a house. For the wedding, the groom’s family will provide a gold-and-diamond jewelry set.

Her family could no longer afford it after Iran’s currency, the rial, lost roughly 70% of its value in just a few years.

The rial has fallen from around 43,000 to the dollar in January 2018 to around 277,000 this week, prompting the government last year to introduce a new unit, the toman, to remove four zeros from bills. However, because most raw materials are imported, everything from rent to clothing prices is based on the dollar, so Iranians spend much more of their income on much less.

According to Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a Virginia Tech economist, the percentage of Iranians living on less than $5.60 per day had risen to 13% in 2020 from less than 10% a decade earlier. It was even worse in rural areas, where nearly a quarter of the population is poor, up from 22% in 2019.

Iran’s middle class is increasingly feeling the strain. Mr. Ariafar’s new smartphone cost him 70% of his monthly salary.

“It’s difficult to succeed and develop in Iran,” he explained, “so perhaps going abroad is my only option.”

Ms. Saberi, on the other hand, had no choice but to stay.

“This is my home, my land, and my culture,” she explained. “I can’t bear the thought of leaving. We must improve rather than flee.”

In July, Iranian authorities unveiled a state-sanctioned dating app as a solution to the country’s marriage and childbirth crisis. Matches, on the other hand, may not be a problem for the young Iranians who the authorities want to start families with.

Zahra slipped on a braided gold-and-diamond wedding ring in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, the jewelry store’s overhead lights glinting off her hot-pink manicure.

“How much?” she inquired, holding her finger up for inspection by her fiancé.

The owner, Milod, 38, responded, “We’ll give you a good discount.”

“Do you have any imitation diamonds?”

“No, but I will give you a good discount,” he said again.

“I don’t want real diamonds,” she explained as she removed the ring.

With the price of gold having risen tenfold in the last few years, according to jewelers, more couples have opted for costume jewelry. Others marry in small, hurried ceremonies in order to save money to leave. Some people put off marriage until they are in their 30s, while others are priced out.

The next step has also slipped out of reach.

From 2005 to 2020, Iran’s fertility rate fell by nearly 30%, to 1.8 children per woman in 2020, prompting a flurry of incentives.

Prospective parents are concerned about the possibility of further unrest, even war. Nobody knows whether Iran’s ultraconservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, will restrict the few social liberties that Iranians have carved out, such as the Western music that throbs through many cafes or the tattoos that snaking up young people’s arms.

Will the economy ever be strong enough to provide a good life for a child?

Zahra Negarestan, 35, and Maysam Saleh, 38, were fortunate — to a point.

Six months before Mr. Trump reimposed sanctions, they married. Everything they were supposed to buy before getting married doubled in price soon after.

“It was bad back then,” Ms. Negarestan admitted. “We didn’t believe it could get any worse.”

The couple, who recently launched a pottery wheel business, said they have always wanted children. Nonetheless, they continue to postpone making a decision.

“You can have a very objective view of things — I need insurance to have a baby, I need a job with this much income,” said Mr. Saleh, who works for a water treatment company and freelances in video production. “Alternatively, you can rely on faith — once you have a child, God will provide. On any given day, however, my practical side triumphs.”

Ms. Negarestan has remained hopeful.

“Perhaps he or she will find a better way to live,” she speculated.

However, she stated that if they have a child and the country deteriorates, they will leave.

There is a middle ground between hope and despair.

For some, it entails getting married while wearing fake jewels and a rented gown. Others are involved in smuggling.

Thanks to a cottage industry of small-time sanctions-busters, Tehran’s wealthy can still find Dutch coffee filters and baby carrots from California, albeit at a cost. On the streets of the capital, late-model AirPods protrude from ears, and any traffic jam may include a gleaming Range Rover.

Fatemeh, 39, said she started working as an information technology engineer 17 years ago with enough money to save for a house and live comfortably. However, three children and a steep economic decline later, she needed to supplement her income.

She saw an opportunity after the 2018 sanctions, when foreign clothing stores closed or raised prices. She was soon paying Iranians in Turkey to buy products online and fly or drive them back to her.

Business is brisk three years later. Instead of settling for Iranian brands, her customers pay a 20% premium for foreign brands.

“It’s not like with sanctions, where you say, ‘Goodbye lifestyle, goodbye everything I wanted,’” she explained. “We try to work around it.”

Despite having more than doubled her income, Fatemeh said she was barely keeping up. Her children’s school now costs four times what it did a few years ago, and her grocery bill has more than quadrupled.

She predicted that with two more years of hard work, she would be able to catch up to inflation — or, if things worsened, she would be able to do so for much longer.

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‘I Can’t Imagine a Good Future’: Young Iranians Increasingly Want Out