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Vanishing Subsidies and the Middle-Class Bind


18 May 2011 20:27Comments
NoTehranApt.jpgEconomic reform plan puts the squeeze on already strained Iranians.

[ dispatch ] One week ago, an employee of the Tehran Electricity Company rang the buzzer of an old three-family house in Gholhak, a leafy middle-class neighborhood in north-central Tehran. Flashing his identity card, he cheerily informed the wide-mouthed residents that he was there to turn the power off, as the quarterly bill had been left unpaid for several months. An argument ensued among the heads of the three households.

The amount due, which was normally divided among the three apartments, appeared to have quadrupled since the last bill. While all three tenants knew that the price rise was caused by the recent slashes in government subsidies, they turned on each other in frustration. Each wanted the other to pay a larger share: The middle-aged father was accused of using more electricity because he had two small children. He, in turn, chastised the newlywed husband living above him for watching too much television via an illegal satellite dish, and both attacked the single man downstairs for having the largest apartment. "It has begun," the latter commented ominously. "It will be interesting to see how long we're going to manage to live here."

Three months ago, during the protests of 25 Bahman, several thousand members of Tehran's middle class took a desperate stand against the socioeconomic hardships that lie before them. It was not just the angry youth who took to the streets: Walking through the tear gas were fathers with young children, elderly women in chadors, office clerks on their way home from work. Although their efforts met with an overwhelming display of force and were eventually dispersed by the government, they did manage to convey one resonant truth: Though the backgrounds and social outlooks of Tehran's massive middle class vary, its members are collectively angry.

When President Ahmadinejad announced his latest plan to slash government subsidies of food and energy this past December, middle-class families calculated that their lifestyles would take the hardest hit. They believed that their social group, which is heavily reliant on car fuel and utilities, would face the greatest proportional increase in its financial burden. The popular conviction is that the rich can afford the price hikes. The poor, whose utility usage is theoretically lower, will be able to offset their higher expenses with the newly instituted per capita cash handouts. Forty-five dollars per month may be enough to pay the utilities on a tiny flat in south Tehran or the suburbs, the belief goes, but won't do much for the accounts of a middle-class household in the central parts of the city. As bills begin to pile up, the cost of living is consequently becoming a popular topic of discussion in cabs, at parties, and around dinner tables. "The price of fruit went up this week," one teacher from central Tehran recently informed me. "That's bad. Iranians need good, fresh fruit. They think it's their right."

And the recent subsidy cuts are just the latest addition to the economic burdens weighing on Tehran's middle class. Soaring unemployment, caused by a booming working-age population as well as chronic economic mismanagement, compels parents to support their children well into adulthood. The rental of an average apartment demands a deposit of around $10,000 -- a small fortune for young clerks or engineers who make $600 a month. As a result, even married couples in their early 30s often live with their parents.

Saddled with financial responsibility for their offspring, aging middle-class parents are scrambling to maintain material security. Lack of space and constant economic stress gnaw at nerves, creating conflicts within traditionally tight-knit families. Two weeks ago, I witnessed a poignant phone quarrel between father and son. The father, a retired film worker with chronic health problems, was forced to decide between taking a long-planned medical trip abroad and helping his son pay rent. "What does he want me to do?" the son, an art teacher, asked after his father hung up on him. "Even if I quit everything and go drive taxis, in the best-case scenario I'll make [$500] a month. If the government does nothing to create opportunities for us, we have to get help from our parents. It's unfortunate, but it's normal here."

The tension is not limited to family members. As uncertainty rises, altercations intensify between neighbors, already crammed together in creative living arrangements as landlords try to maximize profits. In the center of the city, high rents and rapid urbanization throw together residents of sundry backgrounds and persuasions, leading to paranoia and mutual distrust. Young people especially have a phobia about their neighbors. All of the pastimes that are illegal but nevertheless common in Iran -- dating, dancing, drinking -- may be enjoyed only with the silent acquiescence of the person next door. If that person happens to be conservative, conflict is practically inevitable: One 26-year-old told me he once sprained his ankle in a kicking fight with his neighbor, who threatened to have him evicted for inviting single girls to his flat.

Underlying all this interpersonal hostility is the joint awareness of a downward economic spiral. "The rich get richer and we, the middle class, get poorer," says Ali N., an engineer's assistant from a relatively well-to-do part of Karaj, the sprawling suburb to the west of Tehran. Those in the lower income brackets of the middle class are especially desperate not to slip into poverty. Ali says the price of his daily drive to work has increased tenfold since December due to soaring gas prices. He now spends two and a half hours commuting by subway each day to save money. "You just cannot earn enough," he complains.

Yet although times are hard, to claim that the country's entire urban middle class is wallowing in despair would be a gross denial of Iranians' inherent joie de vivre. Several days after disputing their electricity bill, the three residents of the house in Gholhak were visited by their landlord. She had brought them a new lease, which included a 20 percent increase in the monthly rent. This time, however, there was no arguing. After signing their new leases, the father took his family on a three-day trip to see relatives in the country, while the single man downstairs drove to a well-off friend's villa in the north of Iran. The newlywed, meanwhile, rewired the satellite dish to share it with all three units.

Photo: lifegoesonintehran.com

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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