Amid Uncertainty, Iranians Hope For Economic Reforms

Mar 5, 2016
Originally published on March 6, 2016 9:15 am

In Iran, voters are still waiting for clarity from the Feb. 26 parliamentary elections, but they're optimistic that a more cooperative legislature will help the government boost the economy. Hopes for broader social and political reforms, however, remain faint.

On a recent afternoon, a covered bazaar in north Tehran has its share of visitors, but there seems to be a lot more window-shopping than buying going on. Carpet shop owner Ali Mirnezami confirms that impression. He says this shop has been operating for 90 years, but at the moment things aren't looking good.

"The market is down, it's not bouncing back," he says. "We're still waiting for final election results and we hope that will improve things, but so far nothing tangible."

Mirnezami says Iranian President Hassan Rouhani needs a cooperative parliament to fulfill his promise to use money coming into Iran as part of last year's nuclear agreement to restore some vitality to the economy.

First, Mirnezami says, the government needs to tackle inflation.

"They also need to create some jobs for our young people," he says. "Then they need to look to the production sector, rehabilitate our factories. I hope the early signs of a more cooperative parliament are true."

Broader Reforms Still Elusive

Reform voters stood in long lines on election day in hopes of keeping hardliners out of parliament as much as possible. Younger voters like Mohammad Reza Rezahani made it clear he had more than a better economy on his mind.

"I vote today only for freedom — a little freedom, a little. I'm not having any freedom," he says. When asked if he'd like to see a parliament that will work with President Rouhani, he eagerly agrees.

Many younger Iranians have been chafing under the country's conservative religious social restrictions. They would love to be able to speak their mind without fear of arrest. But nearly seven years after authorities crushed massive street protests, reformers are still threatened with arrest and expectations for change are extremely low.

For one thing, there will be large numbers of conservatives in the next parliament who may back Rouhani on economic issues, but will likely vote against changes on sensitive issues such as the mandatory headscarf for women.

Iranians also see external reasons for caution. Analyst Foad Izadi at Tehran University says Iranians only need look at the chaos plaguing the region to see how easily popular demands for change can get out of hand.

"So if people want to change things — and a lot of people want to change things — they do not want another revolution," he says. "Because revolutions would be messy and deadly ... so they do want to change some things about this government, but they want to do it through polling stations organized by this government."

In Isfahan, A Plea For The World To Visit

To the south in the culturally rich city of Isfahan, business owners would be perfectly happy with economic improvements. At Imam Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring ornately tiled grand mosques and a palace, locals take a spin in horse-drawn carriages.

But driver Seyed Mehdi says that's because it's a weekend — most of the time he's scrounging for business. "We don't need the locals, they already know all about this place," he says. "We need tourists, we need foreigners!"

Ahmed Turkan minds a visitor-free handicrafts store nearby. He says no one he knows is especially interested in whether Iran's reformers or hardline conservatives will be in charge of the next parliament. What people want, he says, is some action on getting the economy moving. He spreads his hands and asks, is it wrong to be friends with the outside world?

"Some 50 years ago when there were very few tourists, you could still have seen more people here on this square," he says. "There could be a hell of a lot more people on this square! But as everyone keeps telling us, the signs are promising."

How Many More Visitors Can Isfahan Handle?

In terms of sheer numbers of visitors, the signs are indeed promising — visits to Isfahan were up 60 percent last year, according to Mohsen Yarmohamadiyan at the provincial culture and tourism department. He says in the wake of last year's nuclear deal, Iran is starting to overcome the relentless bad press it gets in the West.

"Ever since this new government took over, they've been trying to bring the real image of this nation to the world," he says. "We're slowly correcting a lot of misinformation."

But for Isfahan, that good news also comes with a challenge. Yarmohamadiyan says much needs to be done for the province to accommodate more tourists, should the numbers continue to grow.

"As more people come to Isfahan, we're urging hotels to build more rooms," he says. "We also have around 1,000 historic houses here, and we're urging the owners to consider converting them into boutique hotels."

But development doesn't always get top priority. After years of debate, Yarmohamadiyan says builders of a new subway line have agreed to reroute it around major cultural sites, including those at Imam Square.

With major social and political reforms still on the back burner, the focus remains on the economy. That's fine with Tehran cooking and catering businesswoman Sanaz Minaei. She shows a visitor a cooking class at one of her several companies, and says the opportunities for Iran are huge — if only the country can rejoin the global economy as promised.

"Certainly we'd like a parliament that will open up communications with the outside world," she says. "When the parliament is cooperating with the government there is more peace, and peace is good for business.

Minaei's wish is to see all the sanctions finally lifted so she can expand her business of promoting Iranian cuisine internationally. She includes the U.S. in that wish, but doesn't expect it to come true overnight. As one of Iran's most successful businesswomen, she can't even get a visa to visit her sisters in America, let alone do business there.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's head overseas now where Iranians are waiting for final results in last month's Parliamentary elections. Iranians are hoping the government will revive the economy now that crippling sanctions being lifted as part of last year's nuclear agreement with world powers. But as NPR's Peter Kenyon found on a visit to the city of Isfahan, many Iranians are getting tired of waiting for better times to arrive.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Isfahan is one Iran's cultural Meccas, a place where Iranians and foreigners can find Persia's rich history on display.

Imam Square, formerly known as Shah Square, is one of Isfahan's main attractions. The massive square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dotted with ornately-tiled grand mosques and a palace. Horses decked out in bells to attract carriage-riders trot around the square. Twenty-seven-year-old driver Seyed Mehdi says on a weekend morning like this, he does get some local riders. But the rest of the time, he's scratching to make ends meet.

SEYED MEHDI: (Through interpreter) We don't need the locals. They already know about this place. We need tourists. We need foreigners.

KENYON: The tourists are starting to show up in larger numbers. But another driver, Jafar, says their money is being sucked up by package tour operators and hotels.

JAFAR: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: "We need some propaganda," he says with a laugh. "I'm telling you, those tour operators ignore us completely. Ahmed Turkan minds a visitor-free handicrafts store nearby. He says no one he knows is especially interested in whether Iran's reformers or hard-line conservatives will be in charge of the next Parliament. What people, he says, is some action on getting the economy moving. He spreads his hands and asks, is it wrong to be friends with the outside world?

AHMED TURKAN: (Through interpreter) Some 50 years ago, with very little tourists, you could have seen more people here on the square. There could be a hell of a lot more people standing on this square. But as everyone keeps telling us, the signs are promising.

(CROSSTALK IN FARSI)

KENYON: In terms of sheer numbers of visitors, the signs are indeed promising. Visits to Isfahan were up 60 percent last year. That's according to Mohsen Yarmohamadiyan at the provincial culture and tourism department. He pauses a meeting to say that in the wake of last year's nuclear deal, Iran is starting to overcome the relentless bad press it gets in the West.

MOHSEN YARMOHAMADIYAN: (Through interpreter) Ever since this new government took over, they've been trying to bring the real image of this nation to the world. We're slowly correcting a lot of misinformation.

KENYON: But for Isfahan, that good news also comes with a challenge. Yarmohamadiyan says much needs to be done if the province is to be able to accommodate the expected influx of people should the numbers continue to grow.

YARMOHAMADIYAN: (Through interpreter) As more people come to Isfahan, we're urging hotels to build more rooms. We also have around a thousand historic houses here, and we're urging the owners to consider converting them into boutique hotels.

KENYON: On the other hand, development doesn't always get top priority. After years of debate, Yarmohamadiyan says builders of a new subway line have agreed to reroute it around major cultural sites, including those at Imam Square.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)

KENYON: The Zayandeh River passes through another famous Isfahan site - the 33-arch bridge, or at least it does when water levels are high enough, which hasn't been often in recent years. People here are hoping the winter rains are replenishing the river and that the government can stay on the path of opening Iran up to an outside world that has been very leery of coming to visit. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Isfahan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.