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“Chi mikhad beshe?” – what is going to happen? – is the most common question Iranians ask each other. It is asked in taxis, grocery stores, hairdressers and in the queues to buy bread. No one, however, seems to know the answer.
Economically, the past few months have been particularly difficult as the effects of international sanctions have made themselves apparent in daily life.
At first glance, parts of Iran still feel prosperous, despite breathtaking inflation. In the shops and at the markets, there is no shortage of basic commodities, from rice to grains to meat.
How long this will last, though, is another matter entirely. The collapse of the rial against the US dollar is worrying virtually every sector of society. Even those Iranians unlikely ever to have left the country and handled a greenback follow the free fall of the rial because of its impact on the prices of basic goods. Rich and poor are united in the belief that they have lost two-thirds of the value of their assets, savings, properties or purchasing power over the past year.
Businesses complain of being squeezed between higher costs of goods and fewer customers. Many middle-class families can no longer afford luxury goods such as imported clothes and shoes. Beauty salons, even in Aghdasieh, one of Tehran’s most affluent neighbourhoods, say that some of their regular clients can no longer afford pampering.
Ordinary families are also feeling the pinch. The annual summer flight from Tehran’s torrid temperatures slowed to a trickle as many opted to stay home and save money. Meanwhile, the city’s taxi drivers are even more aggrieved than usual as a drop in the number of parties and other social events has led to a decline in business.
That the majority of Iranians are more concerned with basics than “luxury” items is demonstrated at the butcher, where fewer people are buying red meat. There are growing fears that the effects of malnutrition will soon become evident.
Yet the nightmare is that one day in the not too distant future these may be remembered as the last good days in Tehran. For the first time since the 1980s – when Iraq invaded the country – there is a growing possibility that Iran will be forced to fight a war. That fear has been fuelled by the prospect of an imminent strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
For now, though, Iranians are not immediately worried about losing their lives. In this volatile part of the world, it is a blessing that there are no explosions on the streets and the country has not turned into a battlefield for domestic opposition groups, as is the case elsewhere in the region.
Iran drank from “the chalice of poison” in 1988 and accepted a ceasefire with Iraq because of mounting public pressure and a deteriorating economy.
The US and its allies hope that crippling sanctions will help history repeat itself. But Iran’s decision makers are unlikely to give up on their nuclear ambitions. The consequences of neither side backing down are keeping ordinary Iranians awake at night.
Iranians ceaselessly debate the various scenarios. Iran, most feel, will not turn into another Iraq or Afghanistan because the US does not seem to have the stomach to stage another massive strike to change a regime. North Africa does not seem to be a model, either. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali behaved more like Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s ousted Shah. A Libyan scenario is out of the question, too, because foreign military intervention is highly unlikely.
“Look at Syria!” many people warn each other. Iranians think that when their leaders are challenged, they will behave like Bashar al-Assad’s regime: they will try to cling to power regardless of the costs.
But change at this stage is at least unlikely to be driven from within the country. Iran’s leaders have learnt from history that their people are, ultimately, pacifists, despite the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Street protests such as the “Green revolution”, when thousands took to the streets in 2009 to force political reforms, are now deemed too costly and fruitless. The options still available to Iranians to voice their objections, it seems, are dwindling fast.