TEHRAN — A trip down the 19 kilometers of Valiasr Street, the avenue that splits Tehran in two, is like walking through a metaphor for Iranian society. At one end, by the railway station on Rahahan Square, the houses are narrow and tatty; but continue towards Tajrish Square, and glass skyscrapers and shining buildings rise on the horizon.
On the south side of the city, people cling to the politics born from the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the opulent north, improbable dreams have carried the liberals in a country where 70% of businesses are state-owned.
It is said that the rich and the poor are stuck together in the same boat, both victims of the crisis and sanctions that have strangled the country. But there are obvious differences — and that’s without even counting the wheeler-dealers who made serious money from the embargoes, and can now be seen cruising around the city in their Porsches.
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Skyscrapers on Valiasr Street, near Saei Park — Photo: KeroseneHalo
The restaurants on the sides of the square in front of the train station seem like they’re all part of the same house. The people here voted en masse in the past for former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even if they’re not so convinced anymore.
Even in 2009, when the unfit head of state was reelected for a second time, petrol cost around 4.5 euro cents per liter — now it’s closer to 25. The sanctions have crippled foreign trade, oil, banks, and shipping; and thanks to the effects of Ahmadinejad’s political and economic suicide, the official inflation rate is 32.5%.
One year ago, President Hassan Rouhani was elected to pick up the pieces of the country, a tremendous challenge that both the nuclear deal and the future of the sanctions weigh upon.
In this kind of emergency, democracy is the least of people's worries, though some attempts have been made — like when the president said that the Internet shouldn’t be censored. But the truth is that it isn’t Rouhani who gets to decide. It’s the State powers, such as the judiciary, who seem to have but one goal: limit the government’s actions.
Vultures, conservatives and the Revolutionary Guards watch the new president's every move, in silence, ready to raise their voices in case of signs of failure.
Still, the first results from Rouhani’s presidency can be seen in the numbers. This year the GDP will increase by 1.5%, after having fallen 5.6% in 2012 and 1.7% the previous year.
While progress can be seen statistically, it hasn’t yet arrived into the Iranian people’s daily lives.
Choking on sanctions
"Nothing has changed for me," says Karim, sneering out from under his white mustache as he carries a plastic bag with bread and a bottle of fruit juice. From Golestan, near Iran's northern border with Turkmenistan, this 60-year-old is just passing through the capital.
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Traffic jam on Valiasr Street — Photo: jez s
"Enough with these damned sanctions, let us breathe," he shouts.
In front of a drug store, three men are smoking and chatting. Jalal, 57, speaks for the others: "Ahmadinejad, Rouhani — they’re both the same. Neither of them is prepared and we’re sinking," he says, exhaling both smoke and pessimism. "The sanctions? Of course if they lift them … but they won’t and it will be worse than before."
Zahra, 34, emerges from the Vali-ye Asr shopping mall with heavy make-up and a tight gray coat. "I see no difference. Everything has gone up in price: Electricity costs 25% more, water 30% more, and now they have also doubled the price of a bus ticket. I don’t believe in a deal with Obama," she says. "There is no end to the Americans' demands — they just want to humiliate us."
Saina, 28, who speaks to me in English, says Iran's clerics are the real problem. "As long as they’re in power we’re screwed!" she says with a loud laugh.
Along the long, ancient wall of the GolestÄn Palace, where the Qajar dynasty ruled from, two young boys are clambering over a mulberry bush to get to the berries. Further on is the City Theater and the square that houses the Line 4 metro stop, shining in the sun with its steel and glass. Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf built this transport network for the eight million inhabitants of this city — 14 million if you include the greater metropolitan areas.
We’re now more or less halfway across Valiasr, the imaginary border that separates the rich part of the city from the poor. The number of metro lines, designed by the Chinese, has doubled from two to four, and finally the ring road is running well. Bridges, underpasses and new bus stops were constructed, and now it’s just the appalling pollution that seems like an invincible plague.
Two young men emerge from the escalators: Nima, 22, and Pouya, 23. "The atmosphere here has gotten better," says Nima. "The morality police aren’t harassing us so much anymore, and the tourists have come back. But we’re from Isfahan, in the center of the country, and everything there is still closed."
As we head north, the shops become higher-end, the houses bigger and more modern, and the prices double — triple even. Mohammed, 50, is dressed in a suit and standing on Vanak Square outside the courthouse where he'd come to fill out papers for his divorce.
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Down Valiasr Street — Photo: ninara
"Rouhani can’t perform miracles," he says. "He inherited a disastrous situation. It’s said that Ahmadinejad burnt $100 billion of foreign reserves. Of course, if they lifted the sanctions it would all come back, but I don’t know. I have little trust in the good faith of the Americans."
Marjane is 44, elegant and beautiful with her black Ray-Bans as she gets out of her white Toyota 4x4. Though she shows no sign of fear we'd seen in the past, there isn't much joy either. "Nothing has changed," she says. "Rouhani can’t do much. The Americans? Ah, they don’t want to make any deals, they only do what Israel says."
Tehran was once called the city of the plane trees: The northern part of Valiasr is lined with the trees that bend towards the center of the street, giving it a green canopy roof. There are more in Mellat Park, and Tajrish Square leans towards the Alborz mountains which rise from the Caspian Sea and divide Tehran. This is where Valiasr ends.
The Tehran Times recently reported that the number of European tourists has increased by 450%, and the larger hotels are full of foreign businessmen, nervously waiting in the starting blocks to restart the economy of a country of more than 83 million inhabitants.
Iran’s future lies in Vienna, where the next round of nuclear negotiations will begin on June 16. Everybody is wary of everybody else, but in the end the alternatives are more insidious and unreasonable than any possible agreement. The people of Tehran, however, know well that reason hasn't prevailed in these parts in a long time.