Iranians facing the economic crisis find little joy in the New Year

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran’s bazaars are packed ahead of the Persian New Year next week, but there’s little holiday cheer as shoppers survey the soaring prices of meat and holiday treats and wonder if they can afford both. Others are there to sell goods on the sidewalks to make ends meet.

Crippling Western sanctions, coupled with decades of economic mismanagement, have plunged the country into a deep crisis. Iran’s currency, the rial, recently fell to a record low, essentially wiping out people’s life savings and even making some basic commodities unaffordable.

Months of anti-government protests failed to overthrow the ruling clerics and unleashed a crackdown that further dashed hopes of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which lifted sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.

As they bid farewell to a difficult year, Iranians have little expectation that the next will be better.

“People are on the street, they are shopping, but nobody is happy at heart,” said Azar, a 58-year-old housewife. “I have nothing to do with[politics]but I can feel that feeling fully. I understand that when I look at the faces of our children, our young people.”

She and other Iranians gave their first names only out of fear of retribution.

Reza used to work as a day laborer but had to stop due to an injury. Now the 33-year-old is selling clothes on the sidewalk. “I became a salesman out of frustration,” he says. “I work outdoors in hot and cold weather because I have to.”

“This year the market is not good at all,” he said. “We had hoped that the last days of the year would be better.”

The rial tumbled down an all-time low from 600,000 to the dollar last month, down from 32,000 to the dollar when the nuclear deal was signed.

Then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018 and reimposed heavy sanctions, including on Iran’s vital oil industry. Iran responded by openly flouting the limits of the uranium enrichment treaty, and is now doing so closer than ever to be able to build a nuclear weapon if it chooses to do so.

His decision to supply armed drones for Russia’s war against Ukraineand Iran’s suppression of protests, sparked by the death of a young woman in vice custody in September, has further alienated her from the West. Talks to restore the 2015 deal reached an impasse last summer.

A strange wave of alleged poisoning in girls’ schools throughout the country, the feeling of crisis has increased. Almost four months after the first incidents were reported, it remains unclear who might be behind them or what chemical, if any, was used. Iranian officials have indicated that at least some of the reported incidents are the result of mass hysteria.

A China-brokered agreement last week’s re-establishment of diplomatic ties with regional rival Saudi Arabia has fueled hopes of broader rapprochement with the wealthy Persian Gulf Arab states, which have long viewed Iran with suspicion. However, the deal is unlikely to bring immediate relief to Iran’s economic woes.

Iranian officials recognize an inflation rate of between 40% and 50%, but some economists believe the real rate is even higher. That makes nuts, sweets and other staples for the New Year holiday, known as Nowruz, unaffordable for the growing number of low-income Iranians.

The Iranian authorities blame the crisis on the war in Ukraine, global inflation and a “currency war” by the country’s enemies.

But Iran’s financial crisis began long before Russia invaded Ukraine, and it’s not just the sanctions that are bringing the economy to its knees.

Iran’s clerically overseen government and its paramilitary Revolutionary Guards have long played a disproportionate role in the economy, crowding out the private sector and stifling growth. The country is heavily dependent on oil exports, which have been reduced to a trickle by sanctions.

“The prices of everything have increased many times over, even goods not related to the dollar,” said Azar, the housewife. “A lot of people can’t really afford that, they’re in trouble.”

Mahnaz, a retired civil servant, said the fall in the local currency has cut the pensions he and others depend on.

“Do people gather and celebrate? Everyone has to stay at home, they have nothing to spend and they have nowhere to go. In the past we would travel, but now we can’t. Because we don’t have any money,” he said.

“What can you do with $73 a month?” he asked. “What can I do? Can I even buy chicken and meat?”

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