KlinKlin, 7 November 2022
There is nothing better than bad news. At least that’s what journalists think. Because of the nature of the profession, the majority of news stories do not report positive events. When it comes to certain areas, such as Iran, they are almost exclusively covered in a negative light in the Western media. And our reports are an example of this.
“Iran is a good place to live if you are poor. The state provides benefits and subsidises a number of services. But Iran is a terrible place to live if you are wealthy and educated. Because none of what you want is allowed. The moment you have satisfied your material needs and start educating yourself, getting interested in science, values, morals – then the country becomes narrow for you. You can’t dance in the street, you can’t sing, you can’t travel abroad, you can’t criticize the government, you can’t create something meaningful and modern…” said Sayyad, 34, from Shiraz.
The country’s financial scissors are much wider than Bulgaria’s. The vast majority of the population lives on very little money a month, but through government policy manages to cover their needs often better than Bulgarians. However, the middle class is considerably wealthier, and the same applies to the upper class. The deprivations they endure are artificially created by international sanctions or the government – not so much by their own capabilities.
To get a better idea, let us list some figures and facts:
- the minimum wage in the country is around 170-180 dollars;
- the average wage is around USD 500;
- middle-class salaries range between $1,000 and $3,000, and are most often earned by doctors, dentists, salesmen, engineers, university professors, etc.;
- a family of 4 has monthly gas, electricity and water bills of around 6-7 dollars;
- each car gets 60 litres of petrol per month for $3, with each subsequent 60 litres costing $6;
- a card for 20 trips on public transport in Tehran (metro or bus) costs $1;
- a bus ticket from Tehran to Sistan-Baluchistan (1,250 km) costs about $10*;
- air travel from Shiraz to Tehran (900 km) costs 30 dollars and takes 1 hour;
- a phone card with unlimited internet and a serious amount of minutes at home and abroad costs $200 initially, then a surcharge of between $2 and $10 per month (depending on whether someone is constantly using calls abroad).
Food and education
The quality of food and education in Iran is high, although in rural and mountainous regions literacy levels are poor or non-existent (around 10%).
Nevertheless, the country provides good opportunities for higher education. Students on a government contract receive a stipend of $50 per month, and in medicine and some other fields the amount increases to $200-300. These scholarships, however, are in practice a loan that is repaid after employment. The amount one has to set aside monthly is 6-7 dollars.
Students are allowed to live in government dormitories of good quality and provided with internet, gas, electricity and water for 6 dollars. They can also choose to purchase meal vouchers at the university canteen which will provide them with 3 meals a day for 30 dollars a month.
Food prices have jumped an average of 2 to 4 times in the last 2-3 years nationwide. For a family of 4 that buys average expensive food and eats out up to 2 times a week – the bill is about $300 a month.
For example, take a portion of chicken and rice – a traditional food in Iran. It can cost between $1.5 and $10 depending on the restaurant and the quality. The difference in price may also give a better idea of the income scissors in question.
Women in Iran
The brutality of the Iranian authorities in crushing the protests and killing Mahsa Amini is shocking both in itself and in the context of social life in the country. Factually speaking, women in Iran enjoy a wide range of rights and opportunities that do not exist from a legal perspective.
In spite of the official ban, ladies have been going without the hijab en masse in the major cities for years. Nearly 65% of students are women.
“As a woman, I feel very safe. No one teases you, whether it’s day or night. On the rare occasions when someone sexually assaults a woman, God forbid it goes to rape – the police react the second they do and the punishments are severe.
Women here are among the most educated in the whole of the Middle East, and discrimination against us is no greater than in Europe. Even companies often prefer to employ women because most of us agree to lower wages than men. And even though the law says we have to get permission from our husbands to leave the country – in extremely rare cases this is a problem. I dare say that there is equality between men and women in Iranian families. Or rather, a sharing of responsibilities, but with mutual understanding and respect. My friend and I even share the bills, although he earns more. I insist on this,” said Daria, 35, from Isfahan.
Daria is wearing jeans, a blue blouse, with a colourful scarf around her neck, under which the blonde tips of her hair peek out. All the women, who do not wear a hijab on their head, nevertheless throw it over their shoulders. If the basijis or the police accidentally start making a problem, the ladies throw it on to avoid trouble. She works in the field of translation along with her boyfriend.
“My dreams are simple, to have a small place to live, two kids and a holiday abroad once a year. None of these things seem possible at the moment. For the last two years, I can’t even afford a holiday within the country,” she adds.
Iran also provides some of the broadest rights for ethnic and religious minorities in a Muslim country. Although alcohol consumption is illegal, Armenians are allowed to drink in their homes as well as eat pork because they are Christian and their religion allows it. Temples of religions other than Islam are clearly visible and have protection provided. In Iranian society itself, the Armenian minority is highly valued and respected.
The country’s parliament consists of 290 deputies out of a voting population of 60 million out of a population of 80 million. This averages out to about 200,000 votes for every 1 parliamentary seat. However, the country’s constitution stipulates that the Armenian minority has 2 reserved seats and the Jewish, Assyrian and Zoroastrian minorities 1 each. The groups in question number about 70,000-200,000, 8,500, 20,000 and 30,000 respectively.
Paradise is Persian
As an empire thousands of years old, Persia’s cultural, intellectual, and economic influence on the world, and specifically on Europe, is immense. I dare say that historically the country has been the most influential in shaping European culture, customs and mores since the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. The country’s influence in Asia can be compared to that of the Roman Empire in Europe – a number of countries and cultures have borrowed significant political and economic systems from it, including Arab and Turkic.
However, in Europe we seem to be blind to these historical links and facts. In their mindset and thinking, Iranians have traditionally been more similar to Europeans than any other country in Africa or Asia (apart from Christian ones). Even their language is Indo-European, and the exchange of words between European countries and Iran is considerable. We have a whole book on Persian words in the Bulgarian language.
We will give just one example of cultural influence – that of Persia’s formative role in the Christian religion. In 538 B.C., the Persian empire was a major influence on Persia. Cyrus the Great, considered the founder of the modern Iranian state, freed the Jewish people from the bondage of Babylon in which they found themselves.
Besides the fact that we can only speculate what would have happened if Persia had not done so**, it also shaped the idea of the Garden of Eden in the Bible. The Persians invented the gardens following a few basic rules that remain in place millennia later and can still be seen in person in existing examples, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Green islands in the desert. This inspired the Hebrews for the idea of the Garden of Eden, and in European languages even the word used-“paradise” (“paradise” in English)-derives from the Iranian word for “enclosed space,” since gardens are surrounded by high walls-paradises (and its origins).
It is a fairy tale without end
Iran’s history and culture are so rich and wondrous that they are worthy of being told by Scheherazade. In fact, the 1001 Nights originated in Persia… They are full of familiar and familiar elements as well as unique traditions. Such as the custom of “taarof”, which in short is a complex system of regulating social and even political relations that is unique to Iran. It is the basis of the unprecedented kindness and hospitality of the Iranian people. We’d need a whole other article to explain the domestic and philosophical significance of taarof, so you’d better familiarize yourself with it here.
Everything good that can be said about Iran – is true. Everything bad that can be said about Iran – is also true.
This is a country with extremely complex cultural, political and social dynamics, where realpolitik clashes with tradition, and where the West’s unjust treatment shapes domestic sentiment more than any other religious dogma.
What should the West do?
A number of examples and studies are strongly of the opinion that economic sanctions on whole countries do not achieve the desired effect. Regime change or regime behaviour simply does not happen. Instead, the population suffers while the elites remain largely unaffected.
Lifting sanctions, specifically on Iran, will do much more to bring about change in the country.
It will allow a significantly greater number of Iranians to emigrate, which will either force the authorities to improve the quality of life and respect for human rights in an attempt to keep emigrants out, or it will significantly weaken the Iranian economy through a brain drain.
Allowing greater numbers of Iranians to study abroad and travel will broaden the worldview of more people, making it easier to challenge the governmental and religious viewpoints that are being imposed.
Strengthening bilateral economic relations with the West will benefit a wider section of Iranian society and allow for a stronger and more independent opposition to be strengthened and sustained. The acquisition of good financial opportunities that do not depend directly on the authorities will contribute to the democratic capacity of society. Economic and social liberalisation will contribute to media and political liberalisation.
Western countries will have more options for negotiation and pressure in the future. When a regime (or a person) has nothing to lose, it has nothing to be threatened with.
All this will bring about a qualitative change in Iranian civil society and political opposition. As well, it will force the regime to respect international agreements and human rights more scrupulously. The process will take time, but it has been proven over the last 40 years that sanctions on Iran cannot have the desired effects.
Sanctions are mostly imposed for one reason: domestic politics. So that the government can convince its own society that it is responding appropriately to a situation.
If we are so insistent on sanctions, the most logical thing to do is to impose them on specific people in power and their families (although even this is of questionable effect). Much of Iran’s senior political, military, religious and economic class has foreign bank accounts, billions in property and travels abroad constantly, even the families of thousands of them live there.
Whether Western governments would want this is another matter altogether. Without the crushing sanctions that have been imposed on it, Iran has the potential to become not only a regional but a world power. Something that would seriously damage the interests of Washington and Brussels in the Middle East and beyond.
The blood on our hands
Iranians need real support with visible effect, not Facebook solidarity. Many of them feel betrayed and disconnected from the international community. I will not forget the conversation I had with one of the young men at the Isfahan bazaar, whose name I will spare for security reasons.
He was interested in the opinion of Western society and saw it as the only political player that could influence Tehran. Not the protests inside.
“Tell me, does it make sense to protest? You have a much better view of the big picture.”
“There is. There always is. But you could get beaten, arrested, or killed here. That danger isn’t here.”
“Do people protest with you?”
“Then why should we protest?”
“Because it’s the only way anything can change.”
“Would you protest in my place?”
“I’d easily say yes, but if my life were at stake, I might have a different answer. But I firmly believe that without pressure from within, there is no way to bring about change or get the attention of the West. You Iranians are braver than me and you need to take to the streets.”
“I will protest. But my blood will be on your hands,” joked the boy, just 23. Most protesters are under 30.
“No, that’s a decision you have to make yourself.”
“No, it’s a decision we all have to make together. I will protest.”
We then continued our conversation on other topics. At the end, when we said goodbye, we promised to see each other again next year at the same time in Nagsh-e-Jahan Square for saffron ice cream.
“My blood will be on your hands,” he told me again as we said goodbye and smiled. More sad than cheerful. I just waved at him and left for Shiraz, then Tehran and finally Sofia.
Where there are no protests. But no saffron ice cream either.
*The quality of buses, trains and planes in the country is visibly higher than in Bulgaria.
And **both nations are now considered mortal enemies by most people around the world, including in their homelands.