Hard times for Iran middle class battling sanctions

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Like many middle class Iranians, 55-year-old Maryam has seen the bright future she once envisioned for her family thwarted by the country's economic pains.

Leaning over an elegantly framed photo of her four children, Maryam bemoans the missed opportunities and financial woes that have put an end to her plans.

“Sometimes even thinking about the future is painful. So I just occupy myself with making the manteau,” she said of her in-house tailor shop, where along with her 30-year-old daughter she makes Islamic-approved clothes for women that cover most of the body.

Until a few years ago, Maryam, who has raised her children alone, could make ends meet with a government pension of about 310 euros ($409) awarded to her after her husband died in the 1980s war with Iraq.

But she has had to find a new cash flow, like many other middle class households struggling to adapt to rising prices.

Maryam says she is fed up with broken promises from statesmen who have failed to shore up the ailing economy against international sanctions over Iran's nuclear program and government mismanagement of its oil income.

“Until a few years ago, I could afford certain luxuries, like travel. We were able to save money. We could upgrade our car, for example,” she said.

“But now they are long-gone dreams.”

Iran's currency, the rial, has lost more than two-thirds of its value against the dollar since early 2012 when the United States and the European Union announced new sanctions against Iran's oil exports and access to the global banking system.

The devaluation of the rial, coupled with difficulties in repatriating petrodollars, has pushed prices of imported products through the roof, forcing many buyers to turn to Iranian-made alternatives.

Although authorities have hailed this particular effect of the sanctions as a means to promote domestic products, the implications are not limited to luxury goods.

Many Iranians have had to cut back on imported necessities, including medicine.

“Life is getting more and more difficult. I wish I had a better-paid job so that I could relieve part of the burden on my mother's shoulders,” said Sara, Maryam's daughter, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that requires drugs to keep it under control.

Sara says her medicines eat up a large portion of the family income, as the price of the imported drugs she needs has quadrupled in the past year.

“The domestic-made medicines either do not exist or are not as effective,” she said.

The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has failed to curb soaring inflation, which according to official data, tops 30 percent.

Critics believe the real figure is much higher.

The “mismanagement” of the administration, in the words of critics and even supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also contributed to unemployment, estimated to be in the double-digits.

Ahmadinejad, feeling the pressure from within the ruling establishment, has on many occasions vowed to bolster the economy ever since taking office in 2005.

But his failure has left little choice for the seven candidates approved by the hardline electoral watchdog to contest the June 14 presidential election but to focus their campaigns on promises of reviving the economy.

Mohammad Gharazi, a long-shot moderate candidate, has done little campaigning, but he has repeatedly stated his intention to establish an “anti-inflation government”.

Others, including seasoned diplomat Ali Akbar Velayati, link the economic difficulties to Iran's strained relations with the international community, in particular over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

However many Iranians -- suffocated by sanctions and economic worries -- see little hope of a speedy recovery.

Unconcerned about Iran's disputed nuclear programme, Maryam's 34-year-old son, Saman, says: “We are looking for a better president who can offer better and more practical economical solutions.

“But I know cleaning up this mess and returning to how it was before will take ages,” said Saman, who holds an MA degree in mining engineering and still lives with his mother.

He envies his wealthy friends “who are off doing PHD studies abroad, while I have to sweat blood every day to help my family make ends meet.”

He voted for Ahmadinejad in 2009, when the disputed re-election sparked massive street protests that were crushed by the government.

Now, Saman is critical of the president.

“His wrong economic policies at a time when sanctions were biting only made our lives more difficult,” he said, referring to a controversial subsidy reform scheme that led to increases in the price of many energy products, including gasoline.

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