Reuters: When Reza finishes work at his military base around 2:30 in the afternoon, he rushes to his boxy, old car, flings his uniform into the trunk and heads out into Tehran’s crowded, noisy streets. It is often 10 at night or later when the 44-year old army lieutenant finally gets home after hours of moonlighting as a driver for a telephone-taxi agency. Reuters
By Amir Paivar
TEHRAN – When Reza finishes work at his military base around 2:30 in the afternoon, he rushes to his boxy, old car, flings his uniform into the trunk and heads out into Tehran’s crowded, noisy streets.
It is often 10 at night or later when the 44-year old army lieutenant finally gets home after hours of moonlighting as a driver for a telephone-taxi agency.
“Sometimes I don’t see my younger son for days. He’s asleep by the time I arrive home,” said the father of three. “I have no choice…I have to make the ends meet.”
Ask Iranians on the capital’s streets about the country’s presidential elections of June 17 and they will talk about the price of tomatoes: up 120 percent over the year.
For people like Reza it does not make a difference if one of the four former military commanders running for president wins or one of their rivals. All they want is a leader who keeps prices down and can create jobs for their children.
In a country where half of the 67 million-strong population is under 25 years old, the government needs to create 800,000 jobs every year just to confine unemployment to its current official rate of 11.2 percent. Analysts say the real rate is closer to 20 percent.
Hundreds of thousands of young Iranians, many of them university graduates, remain unemployed while their parents work at two or three low-wage jobs to feed their families.
Only for a few does average economic growth in OPEC’s No.2 crude oil producer of 5.4 percent in the last five years have any positive resonance.
Most just know prices of many consumer goods have doubled or tripled in the same period, although the official average annual inflation rate stood at 14.1 percent.
“FAT LAZY SPARROW”
In Tehran, banners of eight presidential candidates, smiling and promising “an Iran which Iranians deserve,” rub shoulders with huge billboards advertising Rolex watches and shiny BMWs.
Fashionable cars are increasingly seen cruising wealthy north Tehran streets, where the nouveau riche live in houses worth up to $5,000 per square meter.
A new breed of young entrepreneurs, active in businesses which range from IT to snack-foods, blame Iran’s predominantly state-owned economy for unemployment.
“It is like a fat, lazy sparrow, still feeding in the nest,” said 37-year old Kourosh, who makes car parts in his small plant south of Tehran. “It’s time it learned to fly.”
Iranian carmakers, the largest in the Middle East, churn out some one million cars to the local market with the private sector rapidly increasing its share of production.
None of the eight presidential candidates disagree that Iran’s lumbering economy should be privatized, but the country’s drive to sell state assets has so far failed to find buyers because of political instability.
The ongoing dispute over Iran’s nuclear program has dulled appetite from foreign investors sniffing around this huge potential market.
Washington accuses Tehran of seeking atomic warheads under the cover of a civilian nuclear program. Despite it’s huge oil and gas reserves, Iran says it needs nuclear technology for its growing energy demands.
Not surprisingly, all candidates talk up a thaw in relations with the United States, easing away from the anti-American rhetoric of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
SURFING ALONG ON OIL
Riding on the back of record-high oil prices, Iran’s economy has been voraciously importing. It imported more than $36 billion worth of goods in the year to March 2005, a 24 percent surge over the year.
Some of these imports such as Chinese shoes have already undermined cobblers in Iran, which this month got the green light to start talks for joining the World Trade Organization.
Other imports such as cosmetics end up in the windows of luxurious shops, beyond the reach of most Iranians.
“Thirty years ago, per capita income in this country was twice Turkey’s. Now it is half,” said economist Mousa Ghaninejad, who believes Iran’s abundant reserves of oil, gas and metals should make it a far richer country than Turkey.
Ghaninejad said monopolies, state control, excessive red tape and a lack of foreign investment have hobbled Iran, highlighting these problems as the key challenges for the next president.
Reza the moonlighting cabbie is pessimistic.
“My car has lost hope of retiring from its taxi shift.”